The music rose – from the romantic “My Girl” by the Four Tops, to the exalted “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson – as beautiful Black queens paraded, and dancers whirled in brightly colored kente cloth on June 17 in Winston-Salem, the day that Triad Cultural Arts presented its 19th annual Juneteenth, subtitled “Celebrating Freedom and the Will To Be Free.”

Bands, dancers, and more performed on three stages from 1 to 8 p.m. as 81 vendors sold uniquely Afro-centric wares, and food trucks served up Italian Ice, squash casseroles, fried pork chops, and much more.

Nothing expressed the feeling of the day quite so clearly as those stirring words from the Weldon Johnson hymn as sung by the Renaissance Choir:

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.”

The word Juneteenth is a contraction of June Nineteenth, the day in 1865 when U.S. Troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. This sadly occurred a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth officially became a U.S. holiday on June 17, 2021. It is arguably the most important of American holidays, since it is the day when all – not just some – Americans were declared free people.

Feelings of freedom, joy, and community surged on Saturday when more than 8,000 people showed up on Patterson Street for this year’s Juneteenth celebration. Biotech Place and Bailey Park provided plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the glorious late spring day. Despite the large number of attendees, the lines for food were short, and the event never felt over-crowded.

Cheryl Harry, the founder and executive director of Triad Cultural Arts, said that after many years of working together, her 75 experienced volunteers are capable of running the show without her.

Harry said that the best part of the day for her was: “Watching the volunteers work. We’ve had some of the same volunteers since 2005. In 2015 another wave came on. They come to the festival. They’re invested in the festival. They know our mission, and they know my heart.”

Fran Oates has worked in the information booth near the entrance to Biotech Place for four years with a year off for the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Juneteenth was celebrated with a hybrid event, part online, and part in-person. “Cheryl has always galvanized this group of volunteers, so she can depend on us. We can’t help but want to come back every year.”

“What I love,” Oates continued, “Is that people go everywhere; they go to the food trucks, they go to all the vendors. They leave here knowing more about their community, and they see a blending of cultures while they are doing it.”

Jessica Elix, in her second year volunteering, was also working at the information booth. “I love seeing everyone from every walk of life,” she said. “People of all ages enjoying being in community.”

Michelle Jackson, in her third year working the info booth, said, “I like to see the different people having a good time, enjoying themselves.”

For the second year, a Queen Juneteenth was selected the Friday before the Saturday event. Special mentors teach dignity, poise, and values to the high school girls who compete for a full scholarship to a Historically Black College or University. The young women are then presented to the community at the Juneteenth festival.

Dr. Stephanie Hurt, creator and artistic director of the Queen Juneteenth Pageant, explained that the Queen had with her a “community” of four other young women representing some of the African values celebrated during Kwanzaa in December. County Commissioner Malishai Woodbury envisioned the pageant, Hurt said.

Tai Wade is the 2023 Queen Juneteenth. Her community comprises Zániya English, fourth runner-up, Miss Imani or faith; Jadyn Uzzell, third runner-up, Miss Nia or lustrous goal or purpose; Zarah Simpson, second, Miss Kuumba or creativity; and Bethany Mack, first, Miss Sankofa or retrieving or knowing history.

“The scholarship pageant is designed to educate the young women in the importance and history of the proclamation,” Hurt said. “And then they identify where they can bring strength to the community as a graduate of an HBCU.”

“I’m honored to represent my community,” Queen Tai said. “Without Juneteenth, we would have not freedom. Today, I’m going to celebrate and be grateful.”

Retired District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield, resplendent in a long red, gold, and black dress and a wide studded belt, acted as the master of ceremonies inside Biotech Place. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, and Mayor Pro Tem D.D. Adams spoke to open the festivities.

Former Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin presented a libation to the ancestors, citing the tribulations that they survived. “Our people came, through no choice of their own, on the slave ships. They were taken first to the Caribbean islands where they were broken down before being shipped to Brazil and America, but their spirits could not be contained.”

Outside among the vendors along Patterson Avenue, Quentin Jackson, founder and designer of the QJAC apparel brand, said that he was enjoying love from the hometown crowd.

On the Main Stage at the corner of Fourth St. and Patterson, the day culminated with a rousing performance by the tribute band Aretha Franklin meets Earth, Wind, and Fire. Many attendees, energized by the day and the music, got up on their feet and partied to the beat.

It was a magnificent end to a day of joyful celebration of African American culture, history, and community.