Juneteenth celebrates historical and modern notions of freedom

“Its not a costume,” said a man decked out in a navy suit and a golden ascot on Germantown Avenue. “It’s a uniform.”

On Saturday Dr. Daddese Noah Ben Ysrayl, donned a uniform as a representative of a “resurrected order” of the Buffalo Soldiers, two of whom came on horses from Maryland for the Juneteenth celebration in Germantown.  The festival was sponsored by Historic Germantown, the 6300 Block Germantown Avenue Business Alliance, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and Citibank.

The term Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when Major-General Gordon Granger informed the people of Galveston, Texas, that slavery had been abolished. This news arrived in Texas two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order of emancipation on January 1st 1863. There is no historical explanation of why freedom took so long to reach the state, but in 1980 June 19 became a state holiday in Texas.

The 6300 block of Germantown came alive for an afternoon of historic re-enactments. An actor portrayed Harriet Tubman and talked about the role of the Johnson House in the underground railroad. Another actor embodied the character of Hercules, one of George Washington’s slaves.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Food and craft vendors lined the streets. Music from reggae to a drum circle provided entertainment.

Despite the wide-ranging events at the free festival, the cobble stone streets were far from packed. Shirlene Adger, now retired teacher says that’s what she first noticed. “Right now I don’t see a lot of a people,” she said sitting under the shade of a tree in the Johnson House lawn.

“This represents Juneteenth,” she said motioning to the house that served as part of the underground railroad.

But her favorite event so far? “The Buffalo soldiers,” she said who had arrived on horseback leading the “Freedom Walk” up Germantown Avenue. “They are so awesome.”

Founder of Fort Solutions, a summer youth program in North Philadelphia, and Vietnam veteran, Dr. Daddese prefers the term American African to African American.

He says that its important to educate young people about black history.

“From the elevator they step in was invented by a black man to the escalator who was invented by a black man to heart surgery; they don’t know anything about their history,” he said.

Alexander Miles patented the electric elevator in 1887, Jesse Reno created an elevated moving stairway in 1891 for Coney Island in New York City, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893 performed first successful heart surgery.

But not everyone starts out in life a success. Ray Charles Lockmay says the last time he was in Philadelphia, the view was inside of a prison cell. Now a commissioned Buffalo Solider and entrepreneur in Maryland he says the view is much different.

“It’s an honor to come back to a place where you was once locked up at, [but this time] you’ve done something somebody would acknowledge you,” he said.

Born in North Carolina he began stealing cars as a teenager, but by the age of 18 was caught in Philadelphia, beaten and thrown in jail. After four states and 20 years in prison for each car he stole Lockmay was released in 2002.

But Lockmay says that his turning point while incarcerated happened in the library, while reading about black history.

“For the first time in my life I opened up a book and began to read,” he said. “I saw that a black person did more; I’m from North Carolina, the cotton fields, tobacco fields, that’s all I knew and that’s what I thought all we did.”

In 2008 “Saddle up 4 Good” was started by Lockmay and “Mister Morris” in order to bring awareness to domestic violence and the pair rode horses from Maine to Florida for charity. Since then Lockmay has even penned a children’s book and starred in YouTube series of reality shorts meant as teaching aids for children about incarceration.

“And now I tell people, it doesn’t matter where you start in this race, it matters how you end,” he said holding his chestnut mare Windwalker by the bridle.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal