Local family celebrates freedom during Juneteenth

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Many people celebrate freedom in different ways.

As Americans gear up to mark July 4 with cookouts and fireworks, one local family is reflecting on their recent celebration of a different kind of freedom, during an occasion known as Juneteenth.

Deena Poythress (from left) recently celebrated Juneteenth with her family and friends in Stockbridge. She was joined by her eight-year-old son Aiden, friend Brandi Levy, four-year-old daughter Zoë Poythress, and her mother, Sharon Booker. Photo by Jason A. Smith

The annual observance honors the ending of slavery in the 1860s.

Stockbridge resident Deena Poythress celebrated Juneteenth at the home of her mother, Sharon Booker, on June 20.

“June 19 is actually the last day that the slaves were set free in 1865,” says Poythress, 34.

Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1866. Poythress speculates as to the reason for the delay in freeing the slaves in Texas before 1865, despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued two years earlier.

“The word hadn’t gotten to Galveston, Texas yet,” says Poythress. “The Yankees were having trouble pushing into Texas. Plus, the person who was sent to tell the news was murdered.”

Attendees were also given assignments ahead of time, to learn more about Juneteenth to share at the celebration. Poythress says her eight-year-old son, Aiden, gave a presentation about Juneteenth, based on research he had done through books at a local library.

Brandi Levy of McDonough, was born in Ohio and lived in Georgia for the last 12 years. She came up with the idea of celebrating Juneteenth with Poythress and her family. Levy says the concept actually came when they marked Cinco de Mayo earlier this year.

“We’re not Mexican,” says Levy, 35, with a chuckle. “We celebrate everyone else’s independence, and I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate our independence. It was good to be positive about something that was a scar in our country’s history.”

Booker, of Stockbridge, first learned about Juneteenth when she was in her twenties, because of a community celebration in Ohio, where she was living at the time, but moved to Georgia three years ago.

“As we sat around enjoying the spread we talked about our family histories, the values that were instilled in us by our parents, and our collective hopes for the future, one of the elders present spoke of the origins of her family's last name,” says Booker, 63.

She says Juneteenth has taken on a new level of significance to her, partially as a result of recent events surrounding the Confed-erate flag.

“We’ve always been offended by the Confederate flag, but didn’t have people in power who would listen to us so that it would be removed,” says Booker.

All three ladies agree that in addition to helping them honor their history, this year’s Juneteenth is special to them in light of a recent announcement that records of former slaves are being made public across the country.

Poythress says she would like to see Juneteenth celebrated more locally, and on a grander scale in the future.

“We hope to, next year, make it bigger and not just in our home,” she says. “That’s the intent of Juneteenth. It’s not just for African-Americans.”