Liberia’s First ‘Juneteenth’ Celebration

Journey Home Festival delegation stands alongside Joe Maybury, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S Embassy in Monrovia. Providence Baptist Church (first) in the back. 

— African Americans rediscover Liberia’s ‘Door or Return’ 

As African Americans in the United States celebrate  ‘Juneteenth,’ the flavor of ‘Freedom Day’ is being shared for the first time in Liberia, through the Journey Home Festival.

This week, more than a dozen African Americans have journeyed to Liberia for the first time to celebrate the holiday through a rediscovery of the ‘land of return’ for the freed people of color who decided to return to Africa. The Festival is well underway, with a carefully curated itinerary including excursions to historical and heritage attractions around Liberia, such as Providence Island, the National Museum and the cultural village of Dimeh, and Blue Lake to name a few. 

Of course, no excursion of Liberia’s rich heritage sites would be complete without a visit to the historic Providence Baptist Church, where the country’s Declaration of Independence was signed. And it was within the church’s original sanctuary where, on Sunday, June 19 — Juneteenth — the Journey Home Festival officially began, organized and hosted by Saqar Ahahh Ahershu and Den Tut Rayay, two African Americans who have been in Liberia for nearly a five years. 

It was awe-inspiring, to say the least, and Joel Maybury, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Embassy in Liberia, did not miss the opportunity to underscore Liberia’s unique place in history and the country’s close connection to African Americans in the quest for freedom. Maybury, a trained journalist, and a diplomat said he was humbled that he was at the historic Providence Baptist Church, a “hallowed” place where the first generation of freed Black Americans who came to “these shores on January 7, 1822, gathered to worship.”

“Those men, women, and children arrived in the land that came to be known as Liberia almost a full 41 years before the Emancipation Proclamation,” Maybury continued, adding that Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of enslaved people in the United States at the end of the American Civil War.

He explained that on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect and declared enslaved people in the Confederacy free but that there was a condition and that was that the Union wins the war.

“The Emancipation Proclamation turned the [American Civil War] into a fight for freedom and, by the end of the war, 200,000 black soldiers had joined the fight, spreading news of freedom as they fought their way through the South. As you no doubt know, the State of Texas was one of the last strongholds of the South and, as a result, emancipation would take longer there.  In fact, when the last battle of the Civil War was fought in 1865, it is believed that many enslaved people still did not know they were freed.”

He registered that many slaves, blacks, barely knew that they were freed at last until when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and announced that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a Proclamation freeing them, that 250,000 enslaved people learned of their freedom.

“These were the words of Granger that day: ‘The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. 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 the employer and hired labor.”

He recalled that in June 2021, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. With the signing of the bill by President Biden, Juneteenth became the first new federal holiday since the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Maybury announced that Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State, does not only recognize Juneteenth as a Federal holiday but “more broadly, it is a celebration of Black culture and a reminder to all Americans that our nation’s journey toward equality has been long, often painful, and is still incomplete.”

He said, not only in Liberia but Blinken has committed the Free American to championing the cause of building a world of freedom in all the nations.

“Desiree Cormier Smith was sworn in last week as the State Department’s first Special Representative for Racial Inequality and Justice. She will lead our work worldwide to protect and advance the human rights of people belonging to marginalized social and ethnic communities and combat systemic racism, discrimination and xenophobia,” he said.

He welcomed his fellow Americans, Rev. Dr. Cythia Jackson, Judge of the Municipal Court of New Jersey and others who have made it their solemn obligation to visit Liberia and appreciate the unique links worth learning about and helping to contribute to a better community.

Rev. Charles O.D. Diggs, the administrative pastor of Providence Baptist Church gave a brief history of his church as the visitors sat in the edifice to learn together and fellowship. Rev. Diggs said there is never a possibility one would talk about Liberia without mentioning the Providence Baptist Church because it was in the church representatives from Grand Bassa, Sinoe, and Montserrado, the first three counties then making up Liberia, assembled, signed, and proclaimed the declaration of independence.

He told the audience that Lott Carey, born as a slave in the U.S., became Liberia’s first Baptist Pastor in 1821. He named John Day and Collin Teage who, along with Carey, met at the home of Teage in America and founded the Providence Church now in Liberia.

Rev. Laura Pritchard, Director for sisterly Church relations at Providence Baptist and Dr. Clarice Ford Kulah dramatized the struggle for freedom by the then slaves and their yearning to travel to the place now known as Liberia, when the American Colonization Society began repatriating freed blacks to Africa. The repatriation exercise aimed to not only depopulate the black communities in America in fear of rebellion against their former masters, but also to begin the spread of Christianity and Western civilization.

After the indoor ceremony, sightseeing visits were made to the National Museum and the Centennial Pavilion, where pictures and artifacts depicting historical events, including those of tragic nature as in the case of the civil war, were viewed and learned about.