STARKVILLE, Miss.—Messages of hope, history, freedom and celebration rang throughout Starkville for six days as residents celebrated Juneteenth.
The first Juneteenth celebration happened on June 19, 1866, Juneteenth Committee for Unity Vice President Yulanda Haddix told about 20 people who had gathered for an evening of prayer in Unity Park on June 14.
She told the history of Juneteenth, which started with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that declared over three million enslaved people in Confederate states to be freed. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing the end of slavery to its Black residents. Union troops had already arrived in Columbus, Miss., a month earlier on May 8, 1865, freeing the enslaved people of the town. Columbus residents still honor May 8 as Emancipation Day.
President Joe Biden signed a law designating June 19 as the Juneteenth federal holiday in 2021. StarkVegas Juneteenth committee founder Frank Nichols said coincidentally, he and his wife Tammie Nichols held a jazz festival in Starkville that same day for residents to gather and listen to music.
“Just coincidentally, we did it on June 19, which is Juneteenth, which had never been celebrated here in Starkville, not citywide,” Frank Nichols told the Mississippi Free Press.
After the jazz festival, Oktibbeha County NAACP President Haddix approached him with an idea to host multiple events for Juneteenth in the following year. The Nicholses and Haddix formed the StarkVegas Juneteenth Committee for Unity in 2021 to share Black history and culture with all people.
In 2022, the committee held five days of Juneteenth events, including jazz, soul and gospel festivals, as well as events like a barbecue contest and a cigar social.
“We definitely kind of wanted to bridge that gap and bring everybody together in this very diverse community,” said Frank Nichols, who was Starkville’s police chief from 2014-2019.
This year, the Juneteenth committee had a six-day-long roster with all three festivals returning alongside a variety of events.
Encouraged, Not Complacent
An evening of prayer kicked off the celebration, with Juneteenth committee members, local officials and residents speaking to an audience of about 20 people at Unity Park on Wednesday. Ministers prayed for a safe, successful celebration. Singers from churches performed acappella praises for God.
“One thing that we know historically is that music shapes our heart,” Tammie Nichols said before introducing Aretina Daniel, the first lady of Mt. Pleasant M.B. Church in Louisville, Miss., who sang “Love Lifted Me.”
Alderman Henry Vaughn read the city’s proclamation of June 14-19, 2023, as Juneteenth Unity Week. Oktibbeha County Supervisor Joe Williams recognized the holiday in his speech as “a celebration of American history” and gave the board’s appreciation for the Juneteenth committee members’ efforts to preserve Black history and educate residents.
“It is most important to celebrate the positive aspect of American history and embrace the celebration of African Americans who are part of American history,” Williams said.
Debra Prince from the Starkville-Oktibbeha School District told attendees to be encouraged but not complacent. She said the community must be willing to work with the school district to achieve high educational standards.
“We have every reason to be encouraged, but we can’t afford to ignore the challenges that are before us, nor can we shy away from the tough questions that we must ask,” she said.
Mississippi State University African American History Professor Donald Shaffer reflected on the civil rights activists featured in portraits on the brick walls of Unity Park.
“We are the validation of their suffering and sacrifice,” he said.
The professor said emancipation “came at a high cost,” as more than 630,000 soldiers died during the Civil War.
“I’m more than a conqueror. If they can do it, I can do it,” Shaffer said, gesturing to the portraits while members of the crowd voiced agreement with the message.
‘Loving Different Cultures’
Music became a common theme throughout the six days of Juneteenth events.
Friday evening, five bands performed at the WestSide Soul Festival in Westside Park to an audience of over a hundred people.
Starkville resident Sara Moye attended the festival with three of her cousins to “celebrate the happiness and get together with friends and family.”
She said she enjoyed the night’s music and planned to attend some of the other festivities.
Like Moye, resident Jerry Lynn Hornburger said she has been to most of the Juneteenth events because of her love for the community.
“I just love seeing people being around different people loving different cultures,” Hornburger told the Mississippi Free Press.
Saturday, the Juneteenth committee held four events preceding the third annual StarkVegas Jazz Festival at Fire Station Park. The week of events concluded with a gospel festival on Sunday and a youth art gallery on Monday.
“We wanted to try to give everybody something to do,” Frank Nichols said.