Chapel Hill residents came together on Saturday afternoon for a week-delayed Juneteenth rally at McCorkle Place, celebrating the holiday with local speakers, poets and musical performers while reflecting on the town's dark, racist past.
The rally was postponed last week due to inclement weather, but youth organizers Victoria Fornville and Niya Fearrington still felt it was important to hold a peaceful protest in honor of the annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
“Even though Juneteenth was last week, we still believe in continuing to celebrate the liberation of Black lives,” Fearrington said, introducing the event.
David Mason Jr., a member of the Chapel Hill Nine, was one of the first speakers. In 1960, Mason was one of nine Black teenagers who organized the first sit-in in Chapel Hill at the Colonial Drug Store on Franklin Street.
“On behalf of the Chapel Hill Nine, I am privileged to say welcome to the movement,” Mason told the crowd. “You are what we've been waiting for.”
Mason reflected on the sit-in movement, and talked about the importance of the current generation keeping up the fight for freedom in the face of racial inequity.
Terrence Foushee, an English teacher at Northwood High School, read a poem in commemoration of the enslaved people who helped build UNC and who may now be buried in Chapel Hill.
Foushee asked the audience to acknowledge the darker parts of Chapel Hill’s history, so that the enslaved people who built the University might be properly honored for their role.
“Black folks here have been painting our sky and campus Carolina Blue, and we've been putting their paintbrushes in the attic,” he said. “Let's hear the voices that whisper underneath wood floors and tell their stories to one another, so these wonderful bodies that have been tossing and turning in their coffins because they feel that we've forgotten about them, can finally rest in the way God intended.”
In the interludes between speeches and spoken word poems, there were vocal performances of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone.
There were also booths that had been set up on McCorkle Place for the rally, including a voter registration tent, DJ booth and two muralists who were painting pieces to be hung up in Chapel Hill later this week. The Franklin Street Ben and Jerry’s had a booth set up giving out free cups of the flavor created for their criminal justice reform campaign, “Justice ReMix’d.”
Rayna Blair, a rising junior at East Chapel Hill High School, also spoke. She called for the inclusion of Black history in the curriculum of the local school system, which she mentioned portrays itself as progressive and having some of the best education and diversity rates despite having the second largest racial achievement gap in the country.
“The very first time I learned about Emmett Till, I was maybe 5 years old,” Blair said. “Later on in my years, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools education system named Emmett Till and countless other Black names to be left out of my history books and our classrooms. Last year in class, I brought up the name Trayvon Martin, and I was shocked to find that many white students didn’t either recognize the name or know who he even was.”
Mason said from policing to education, the systemic changes Orange County needs to address for racial equity are clear. However, he said this generation of young activists give him hope.
“Orange County still has the greatest poverty gap in North Carolina, so we still live in poverty. We still have a need for fair housing and better jobs. We still have a problem with the police, and the second largest achievement gap in the country. We still have insufficient education,” Mason said. “But you are what we've been waiting for. Your generation has stood up to this oppressive system and held a mirror to its face. Because of your generation, we will never look back at racism the same.”
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