You can hear the passion and excitement in Phyllis Coley’s voice as she flutters about Juneteenth Celebration, making sure everything is going as planned.
Coley has been organizing the celebration, an event she calls a “party with a purpose” for 10 years.
A Durham native, she grew up in what she described as the “ghetto” and being able to give back to the community that helped he grow and flourish.
But, it also gives her a chance to help educate the community on an “ugly” topic.
“(Juneteenth) is all about people understanding the significance of this day,” Coley said.
Juneteenth is the celebration of the ending of slavery, Coley said, and the word finally reaching Texas on June 19, 1865 — some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Having a celebration in Durham also holds its own significance. Durham was home to the largest surrender of Confederate troops in the Civil War.
Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham on April 26, 1865, 17 days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatox.
“There is a movement now, to make Juneteenth a national day of observance,” she said. President Obama released a statement on June 19th marking its observance.
“Juneteenth marked an important moment in the life of our nation,” the statement reads. “But it was only the beginning of a long and difficult struggle for equal rights and equal treatment under the law.”
Now, 149 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Coley said getting people involved and interested in Juneteenth has been an uphill battle.
“It seems to me, that every way we turn, people don’t want to recognize it,” she said. She believes it comes back to the topic of slavery.
“It’s ugly, it was ugly,” she said. “We cannot change history, it is what it is. So let’s recognize it, and understand it, and move forward so we don’t repeat it.”
For her, Juneteenth is a multicultural event for those attending, because organizers actively work to bring in entertainers from all genres and offer a variety of booths and vendors. Organizers also use Juneteenth as a way to promote healthy living, by providing blood pressure and glucose checks.
As the Durham Juneteenth Celebration made its way to a decade, Coley said she’s been overwhelmed with the growth it has seen.
The first Juneteeth was held in the gym at N.C. Central University.
“Every year since then it’s grown and grown and grown,” she said. “It’s been awesome for me.”
Over the course of the day, Coley said about 30 volunteers will work shifts to help the day go off without a hitch. Planning for the event she said starts around October and November looking for support. Once February hits though, it comes to the forefront of her mind.
She said sponsors like PNC Bank and Duke Energy really help ensure that they can bring in national acts and gain support from the community.
Because for Coley that support has meant a lot over the past decade.
“To be able to give this back to my community, and the fact that people see my vision (is amazing),”she said. “I’m just a little girl that grew up on the Southside.”
In the coming years, Coley hopes to make Juneteenth a two-day event, spanning Saturday and Sunday.
She envisions more entertainment and church goers coming out and celebrating the history. And Coley knows the history of it.
“Durham couldn’t be what it is, if this had not happened here,” she said. “And this is what I want people to get. This is not just a Black event, because of that and the slave that worked out here … That money came and has made Durham what it is.”