VALDOSTA -- It's been 11 years since the first Juneteenth celebration was held at Payton Park in Valdosta, and it's the day that many African-Americans consider their day of independence.

It's the oldest known celebration marking the end of slavery.

The Fourth of July isn't the day that blacks celebrate independence- June 19 is, said Calvin Graham, Southside Library booster.

The reason is that on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, notifying all there that the Civil War had ended and that slaves were free. To this day, Juneteenth is a big holiday in Texas, Graham said. He remembers the holiday fondly and looked forward to it when he was stationed in Texas with the Army, he said.

The slaves in Valdosta actually received news about their freedom earlier than in Texas. The word reached Valdosta on May 21, 1865, and Madison, Fla., Valdosta's southern neighbor, received word on May 20, 1865, Graham said. The word was delivered by riders on horseback, he said.

Festivities for the 11th Annual Juneteenth began at Payton Park at 7 p.m. Friday with a fish fry of mullet and catfish, said Gerome Anderson, of Ossipe Temple No.65. "We bought 300 pounds and served about 250 pounds and the remainder will be served today with the hamburgers and hot dogs," he said.

The festivities continued at 7 a.m. Saturday with a 5K run that began at the Southside Library, but only seven runners showed up, said Bob Cosby, also of Ossipe Temple No. 65. But, he was optimistic about the remainder of the celebration. The opening ceremony for Saturday was scheduled for about noon and 25-30 vendors were expected to be in place by about 1 p.m.

All the proceeds from the Juneteenth celebration go to the Southside Library, which holds special programs and events year round, said Beverly Sanders, branch manager Southside Library.

Sanders remembers the first Nineteenth celebration in Valdosta 11 years ago and believes about 3,000 people attended it. Friday night, about 1,000 people showed up for the fish fry, but she expects there will be fewer people this year because of other events taking place in Valdosta.

Hunter and Doris Howard are responsible for starting Juneteenth in Valdosta and Virginia Crowell has been a strong supporter of the event, Anderson added.

The Texans celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, but Valdosta chose to celebrate it on the closest weekend to June 19, Graham said. They wanted it to coincide with the Herman Smith and Harvey Memorial Gospel event and with Father's Day, making it more of a family event, Anderson added.

Graham extended a personal thanks to County Commissioner Joyce Evans, who helped prepare Payton Park over the years for the Juneteenth celebration, Graham said. Preparing for the event involves a lot of work and planning for next year's celebration will begin shortly after this one has ended, Sanders said. Next year's celebration will actually join Texas and be celebrated on June 19, she said.

"I think its an opportunity to get some of our history back and get the community involved," Sanders said.

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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