Food, fun, fellowship and especially freedom were enjoyed and celebrated by hundreds of people at the Juneteenth Celebration in the newly renovated Gus Young Neighborhood Park on Saturday.
The 13th annual Juneteenth event was jointly hosted by the Martin Luther King Community Center, BREC and Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the nation, according to the Juneteenth.org website. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, to signal that the Civil War was over and that slaves in Texas were finally free. This came more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued Jan. 1, 1863.
“This is important for the community to promote unity, self-confidence and to come together as a family,” said Jerry Johnson, an elder of Second Baptist Church of West Baton Rouge, who prayed an opening blessing over the event.
“Young people today don’t know much about this and they should know it,” Johnson said, “because you don’t appreciate where you are unless you know where you been.”
Deborah Wheeler said she knew the importance of Juneteenth, but this was the first time she’d attended the Gus Young Park celebration. “This was the day we really got freed from slavery and we need to continue to go forward,” Wheeler said.
Under a shade tree away from the main stage where a band was playing, Arthur Rice was among dozens of people enjoying heaping plates of jambalaya and barbecued chicken.
“Now this is some soul food,” Rice said. “When you come to something like this, it’s where you get the best food.”
The day’s activities began with speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony marking the $380,000 face-lift and reopening of the historic park’s facilities.
In the last few months some new playground equipment arrived, acres of sod laid, new curbing was put down, parking areas were repaved and new picnic tables and pavilions were installed. A new floor for the indoor basketball court was installed and new backboards replaced the old, crooked boards and bent rims.
“I grew up in this park and played on this playground many a day and to see it renovated is really a blessing to me,” Marcelle said. “The people in this community came to me to get this park renovated and they were very adamant about what they wanted. BREC responded and listened to them.”
State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, who said he also grew up playing in this park but several years before Marcelle, promised he would find some state funding to provide air conditioning for the building that houses the basketball court, offices and meeting rooms.
“This is important for the young kids and for the community,” Williams said. “There are not very many large yards in this neighborhood and this gives the kids some room to run and play on the playground equipment.”
Carolyn McKnight, BREC’s new superintendent, later said that because none of BREC’s indoor basketball courts have air conditioning, she wants to look into “any level of partnership support to move us in that direction. We’re going to get there.”
The Rev. David L. Williams, of New Zion Baptist Church, prayed a blessing over the 15-acre park asking God, “that those who come here, no harm or hurt will come to them.”
Even while the speeches were being made and vendors were setting up their food and information booths, several dozen young men were playing half-court basketball games inside the hot gym.
“It turned out real nice,” said Guy Turner, coach for the Transforming Culture Church’s Blue Devils basketball team that was warming up for a game with Gloryland Baptist.
“The new floor isn’t so slippery anymore,” added his star center, Emel Sanford, 19. “It’s much better.”
Jorge Decuir, 21, and Lenard Nicholas, 18, were playing in one of the pickup games, and both said they liked the new court. “It was pretty awesome,” said Decuir, and Nicholas added, “the floor is really much smoother than it was.”
For more information, visit http://www.brec.org.