Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in America, is just around the corner. It is celebrated on June 19 because that was the day in 1865 when the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were made aware of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued two years earlier. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom for all and the island is getting ready to host a special two-day Juneteenth festival this weekend on June 18 – 19. The Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization is responsible for the island’s Juneteenth celebration. They’ve been hosting the Juneteenth Festival along with a beach wade-in since 2015. “We’re coming up on our seventh year. . . We combined Juneteenth along with the wade-in because we were researching the history of the wade-in in the 60s here on Tybee,” said Julia Pearce, Tybee MLK cofounder and coordinator.
African Americans were banned from entering the water on Tybee until about 1965. Savannah State University students and members of the NAACP Savannah chapter, which was under the leadership of W.W. Law at the time, came together to do peaceful, nonviolent protests to integrate the beach, and they were successful. “We’ve been doing the research on that and we wanted to commemorate the people who were brave enough . . . to risk their lives to integrate the beach,” Pearce explained.
The wade-in coincides with the Juneteenth Festival to celebrate freedom and commemorate local figures in the fight for equality and justice. This Juneteenth, islanders can enjoy a fun, free, family-friendly festival on South Beach at Tybee’s pier and pavilion. This is actually a change for festival, as it has traditionally taken place at North Beach. “The African American community that did exist on Tybee at one time, where they felt most comfortable was on North Beach. And Tybee’s only African American restaurant is housed at North Beach, which is North Beach Grill,” she said.
With President Biden declaring Juneteenth a national holiday last year, festival organizers are expecting a bigger crowd this year, hence the move to South Beach. Attendees can look forward to Afro-centric vendors, live music, performances and guest speakers including Gullah Geechee storyteller Pat Gunn, NAACP Savannah president Attorney Chad Mance, and Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions, among others. The festival will take place both days from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Sunday, the wade-in will take place at 9 a.m. “We will sing and we will ask people to join hands, and we will . . . wade into the water on Tybee to celebrate freedom, to celebrate Juneteenth,” Pearce expressed.
Pearce encourages everyone to come out and celebrate this important holiday: “We understand that freedom from the British still had people in America enslaved . . . and they continued like that for over another 90 years. And so, the real freedom celebration of America is when the last of the slaves found out that the emancipation had been issued. . . And so, we as a nation should celebrate the end of chattel slavery in America. And that’s what Juneteenth is. It’s for everybody’s freedom, not just a select group like on the Fourth of July. It’s America’s true freedom day.”
Pearce, like many others, feels that making Juneteenth a national holiday is a step in the right direction. “It means that we’re trying to move closer to a more perfect union,” she began. “Our history began with people enslaved . . . and the legacy of that beginning continues to live with us today. . . And so, what we’re trying to do is let people realize that there’s work to be done. It’s all of our obligation to do this work [towards] the freedom and justice of the people in America, so that we can reach our full potential,” she continued.
Beyond the Juneteenth Festival and wade-in, Tybee MLK works throughout the year to advocate for social justice issues. Pearce encourages anyone interested in making “good trouble” to consider joining the nonprofit or supporting their cause with donations: “If you would like to be involved in social justice activities, we are a place for you to do that. And we welcome you to join us as we work together in the struggle for justice.”