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The African American Heritage Society held its 20th Juneteenth celebration on June 19 at and around the McLemore House and Museum. Despite the heat, organizers saw record-breaking attendance. People arrived from all over Williamson County, other Tennessee cities and other states. 

Kimi and Dasha Hamilton traveled the most miles, having come from Anchorage, Alaska. It wasn’t directly or intentional. Several months ago their home burned to the ground. They lost almost everything and were unsure what to do next so they bought an RV and headed down to the “lower 40.” 

The Hamiltons happened to be in the area when they heard about the Juneteenth celebration and decided to drop by. They were having a wonderful time, but the “icing on the cake” was the cake Kimi won in the Denny Denson Cake Walk.

A man from Kentucky was asking about purchasing a Juneteenth T-shirt when he approached Alma McLemore, executive director of the African American Heritage Society. Seeing his disappointment when she told him there were no shirts for sale, she offered him a Juneteenth shirt a friend made her. She was wearing a 10-year old Juneteenth shirt, but was about to change into the new Juneteenth shirt; however, in typical Alma style, she practically gave him the shirt off her back when she offered him the new shirt. 

For the many settled in chairs and tables on the shady lawn adjacent to the McLemore house, there were numerous tents providing information as well as activities. Food trucks saw long lines all day. Plenty of entertainment for youngsters was happening in the shade across the road on the Johnson Elementary School lawn. 

Many enjoyed free tours through the McLemore House and Museum and had a special treat with local African American historian Thelma Battle, who talked about local African American history.

Harvey Chrisman, AAHS board chair, portrayed Harvey McLemore and spoke about his life. Born a slave on the W.S. McLemore Plantation near Thompson’s Station, he was freed at about age 35 but continued working for W.S. McLemore, but as a sharecropper until he saved enough money to buy a lot from W.S. Bright in the area now called Hard Bargain. When he learned the price, he bought four lots for a total of $400, built a home and a family on one and on the three additional lots he built homes for other family members.

“The crowd really enjoyed [the museum] a lot,” Alma said. “A lot of people went in and took the tour. They were impressed and with Thelma [Battle] in the house, they learned a lot of history.”

Outside United States Colored Troop (USCT) reenactors Bill Radcliffe, Gary Burke and others spoke about former slaves who were freed fighting in the Civil War — for their continued freedom, and President Abraham Lincoln (Dennis Boggs) spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved people in the Confederacy, though it did not free the enslaved in border states that remained loyal to the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but word didn’t get to the people in Galveston, Texas, until June 19,1865 when federal troops in the 13th Army Corps led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived. That day Gen. Granger announced the war had ended, and when he read General Orders No. 3, they learned the Emancipation Proclamation had freed all slaves.

The order also read, “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

On that day all the enslaved in Galveston became free people. They dropped their tools, left their work and proceeded to celebrate the first Juneteenth, a celebration that continued for days.

The AAHS Juneteenth festivities opened with the flag ceremony performed by American Legion Post 215. Post members raised the American flag, which was followed by the national anthem performed by Danielle Sprawling. The Legionaires then raised the Juneteenth flag and Sprawling led the audience in the Black national anthem.

Clark Prince, the official Juneteenth emcee for almost all its 20 years, kept the program moving as local officials welcomed the crowd and Taylor Head spoke about the meaning of Juneteenth. 

Keeling Birdsong, the daughter of Shelly and Johnny Birdsong, sang God Bless America, Stella McQuiddy sang I Just Want To Be A Star from the Broadway play Nunsense, and Charlene Harrison-Turner sang an African American spiritual that moved all who listened.

Free strawberry soda, a traditional Juneteenth drink, was provided for the youngsters. The tradition was born from a favorite bright red drink of West Africans called Bissap, which is consumed hot or cold. It’s made from the dried calyces of the Hibiscus Sabdariffa flower native to West Africa and some areas in Asia and is known for its sweet and tart flavor. Memories of the drink were carried down through generations of enslaved Africans, and later red fruit such as strawberries and raspberries were used to recreate a form of red drink to keep the memories alive. 

Marcia Fraser, Special Sections librarian at the Williamson County Public Library, presided over the Recognition Roll Call of the 24 Pioneer Families who have been recognized in February at the annual Black Tie Affair. The 2025 Pioneer Family, the Randall Brown Family will be introduced during the next Black Tie Affair on Feb. 1, 2025.

“This was a great event,” said Alma McLemore. “I heard lots of feedback and look forward to a bigger and better Juneteenth celebration next year.”

Carole Robinson may be contacted at crobinson@williamsonherald.com