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Feb 7, 2023

Johns Creek Herald

From the Johns Creek Herald:

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Plans for a Juneteenth celebration in Johns Creek are underway, following comments from Black residents who pushed for observing the historic event.

The idea of a freedom festival, which would wrap Fourth of July and Juneteenth together in a weeks-long celebration, had been floated at a previous Arts, Entertainment and Culture (ACE) Committee meeting. Mayor John Bradberry reintroduced the idea at the Johns Creek City Council planning retreat in late January.

But at its Feb. 2 meeting, the ACE committee opted to create a separate event for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of the country’s enslaved African Americans.

Many ideas were thrown into the mix. Pending City Council approval, the event is scheduled for June 17 at Newtown Park.

Committee members suggested a gospel choir, a DJ with secular music, a barbecue cookoff as well as a ceremony honoring Black families buried at Macedonia Cemetery and other historical cemeteries in the city, like Little-Terry.

The committee also recommended that Juneteenth be recognized on the city’s calendar. In 2021, President Joe Biden established Juneteenth – a combination of “June” and “nineteenth” – as a federal holiday. But Johns Creek currently shows a blank slate for June 19, whereas other North Fulton cities like Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have adopted the holiday.

Adding Juneteenth to the calendar as a city holiday requires City Council approval, Johns Creek Communications Director Bob Mullen said.

Marking historic events is important, ACE Committee Co-Chair Devon Dabney said in a phone interview.

“I don't understand why we're treating [Juneteenth] like it's something political,” Dabney said. “To me, it is so beautiful because it represents the completion of a work … It's something that we should always remember, lest we repeat the same thing.”

Diluted history

The ACE Committee meeting saw several public comments from Black residents, urging the city to recognize its Black community, which accounts for 10 percent of the city’s population. Some criticized the idea of lumping Juneteenth with Independence Day.

“I guess I'm so exhausted that everything is always watered down when it comes to African Americans,” one resident said. “...All we're asking for is one day, one day, and that can't be done.”

The problem of diluting Black history has been raised in other contexts. Some have criticized the Student Leadership Johns Creek documentaries about Macedonia Cemetery, which premiered early last year.

“Anybody watching that documentary would look at that thing and say something's missing here,” said Kirk Canaday, member of the Johns Creek Historical Society, who has led Macedonia project efforts.

Dabney has been working on a separate documentary that seeks to paint the full picture of Macedonia Cemetery’s history, one that isn’t “sanitized.” One descendant noticed that portions of his interview had been redacted for the documentaries, she said.

With Canaday leading the charge, Dabney is framing her documentary around the tradition of ancestral veneration and ceremony in the Black community. The documentary starts with the history of the Macedonia Cemetery project.

Macedonia Cemetery, which the city took ownership of in 2021, is an ongoing project that has seen some progress. The City Council elected to form a nonprofit that would oversee project requests. And, last month, cemetery stakeholders discussed plans for ground penetrating radar.

Dabney said the documentary, scheduled to be released on Juneteenth, is going to provide an opportunity for people to go on the record and say what the plans are.

Involving Black voices

Nicole Washington, founder of Impact Johns Creek, also asked that Juneteenth have its own event. Members of her organization weren’t made aware of any ACE planning, she said. The mission of Impact Johns Creek is to “establish and increase the charitable and civic footprint of Black Diasporans living and working in Johns Creek.”

“To be colloquial, did nobody know nothing about nothing,” said Washington, who intended to host a Juneteenth event through Impact Johns Creek if the city didn’t move forward with its own.

Impact Johns Creek will host an open house Feb. 16, which will allow residents to join planning committees for Jazz in the Park, Macedonia Cemetery and Juneteenth. Around 500 people attended Jazz in the Park, a live music concert, last year.

Washington recommended that a city Juneteenth celebration be organized in collaboration with an organization that is “about the people that Juneteenth represents,” a sentiment reiterated throughout the committee’s discussion.

Juneteenth will be planned the same as other cultural special events, Johns Creek Volunteer Coordinator Stacey Gross said. Like the Diwali festival and Lunar New Year, Juneteenth will see an event planning committee made up of residents who want to be involved.

The catalyst for Impact Johns Creek was the lack of visibility and “activation” of Black Johns Creek residents, Washington said. There’s no Black church, and before her organization, there was no fellowship of any kind for “Black folks with a kindred spirit” in the city.

“I'm living here in Johns Creek, running an organization that is very dissimilar from the public opinion of what Johns Creek is supposed to look like, and what Johns Creek represents,” Washington said.

Her roots run deep in advocacy work, tracing back to her grandfather, who was a doctor and member of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was bombed in 1963. When the bomb exploded, her grandfather was blown off the church steps but immediately grabbed his medical bag to aid injured victims.

“I know who I am. I know my history. I know my legacy. I know my family. I know what I represent,” Washington said. “And I know what I'm supposed to be about.”

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