The cement beams supporting Interstate 10 in Old South Baton Rouge have long been a reminder of the area’s racially troubled past. The highway cut through a once vibrant black community, sending it on a downward economic spiral.
But on Saturday, the neighborhood’s residents sought to reclaim a part of their history, as families, artists and community leaders gathered for a Juneteenth Roots and Heritage Festival that featured singing, dancing and lessons in history.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19th, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the South and freed hundreds of thousands of slaves, two years after he made the proclamation.
While the interstate serves as a haunting reminder of the damage done to the city’s black community in later years, colorful paintings of famous black leaders now grace the massive beams next to the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American Museum.
“Now we use this same interstate as a pavilion sheltering us from the rain to bring this community together,” said Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who founded the African-American museum and organized the event.
The celebration of togetherness and freedom exuded from the group, as dozens of attendees sang and danced while songs like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” reverberated in what Roberts-Joseph calls a “historical walking trail.”
The painted pillars are the work of local artist Charles Barbier, and they depict iconic black leaders like former Louisiana Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African-American governor in the U.S.; Baton Rouge-born actress Lynn Whitfield; and Nelson Mandela, a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and later president of that country.
Those portraits are juxtaposed with paintings of the 11 southern states that comprised the Confederacy, and the number of enslaved and free people in those states. In 1860, one pillar reads, 331,726 enslaved people lived in Louisiana.
“We have to be educated about our history and other people’s history,” Roberts-Joseph said. “Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation.”
Lorri Burgess, executive director of the Baton Rouge Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, used the event as a platform to educate attendees about the disease and advocate for the more than 3,000 people in Louisiana living with it.
“It’s a very mean, evil disease,” she said, noting that although it affects mostly black people, it’s a “global disease.”
Torris Johnson, a client liaison for the foundation who lives with sickle cell anemia, spread awareness about the disease, for which there is no cure.
Bea Gyimah, assistant professor of English at Baton Rouge Community College, urged her former students to participate in the Juneteenth essay contest, and 21-year-old Bria Henderson recited her winning essay, “Why (His)Story is Important for History.”
Henderson’s writing spoke to the message and impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. Antoine Lacey, another student of Gyimah, read a poem from his recently published book of poetry, “The Dream Catcher: Food for Thought.”
This year’s festival was ripe with African-American history and cultural education. The R.W. Craig Lip Sync and Pantomime Ministry, a group of four women wearing vibrant traditional African dresses and headdresses, danced to spiritual songs and gospel hymnals.
Marjorie Green, who has lived in Baton Rouge since she was born in 1942, applauded the strides made in the Baton Rouge community over the decades.
Green, who attended Baton Rouge public schools and Southern University during segregation, said there are still “quiet” and “subtle” racial problems in the community, but they are a far cry from her childhood.
“It’s about togetherness and understanding each other,” she said. “We’re not really that different. We’re human beings, and we should all come together.”