Juneteenth Celebration in North Charleston recognizes end to slavery, lives lost in shooting at Emanuel AME Church

Chilenia “Nina Ross” Jamison of Charleston dances to the rhythm of the drums during Juneteenth celebrations Saturday at the Jenkins Institute in North Charleston.

An annual celebration born out of the nation’s last days of slavery doubled Saturday as an opportunity to honor the nine lives lost last week in the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Lowcountry’s Juneteenth Celebration on the grounds of Jenkins Institute — the former Jenkins Orphanage — in North Charleston recognized what some have come to call the real end of slavery.

Slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of their mandated freedom on June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Slaveholders there were slow to communicate the news as they refused to acknowledge the order. The group is said to have been the last slaves to celebrate their emancipation.

The milestone remains cause for jubilation. Attendees Saturday engaged in spoken word, sang and danced to the beat of African drums.

Emanuel AME has close ties to the fight for freedom, 77-year-old storyteller Vermelle “Bunny” Rodrigues told about 50 people who gathered for the Juneteenth Celebration.

“Close your eyes for one second and feel the breeze of your ancestors. Can you feel it?” the Georgetown resident said, while speaking on the origins of the church, slavery in the Lowcountry and the Gullah-Geechee culture.

Emanuel AME’s congregation dates back to 1818 when it was founded as the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the South. It remains the oldest.

Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founding members, “was some character,” Rodrigues said, having plotted a failed slave rebellion that resulted in his death by hanging in 1822.

“But that didn’t stop the spirit of Mother Emanuel,” she said.

The event’s organizers considered canceling the celebration in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting, which is considered a racially motivated hate crime by investigators, but decided instead to widen the scope of the day to recognize the tragedy, said organizer Sherry Ann Suttles.

“I hope you will allow me to cry if I want to,” Suttles said, addressing the attendees. “And cry if you want to. That’s what we have to do to move forward.”

The Gullah Geechee Group Inc., city of Charleston, and the Lowcountry Quarterly Arts Grants Program sponsored the celebration.

The event was one of several over the course of the day to honor the six women and three men slain in the mass shooting.

Hundreds gathered on Charleston’s Wragg Square to march down Elizabeth Street, passing Emanuel AME at 110 Calhoun St., before coming to an end at the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum, 188 Meeting St.

Addressing the crowd through a bullhorn before taking to the streets, Tamika Middleton of Beaufort said that the event would in essence “raise up the spirit of our ancestors” who fought through chains and Jim Crow laws in pursuit of freedom.

“Please call on whatever spirits give you strength,” she said. “We will need them for the road ahead.”

They marched in silence behind a banner that read “Still We Rise,” and carried with them flowers that were laid at the church and signs with messages of unity.

Among them was College of Charleston professor Joy Vandervort-Cobb, who rebuffed any notion that Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old suspected gunman, acted out of insanity.

“I don’t want anyone telling me how crazy he is. He has thought this out. This hate has become his truth,” Vandervort-Cobb said.

She needed to “walk with like-minded people” in order to heal, she said of her reasons for joining the march.

“Today I need community,” Vandervort-Cobb said.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.