By Maddy Vitale
Reflections, honor, legacy and family, those were the words to describe the third annual Juneteenth celebration in Ocean City for what the day means to the community and to the country.
On June 19, 1865, enslaved Africans in Texas learned of their freedom, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a day that has been celebrated since then, according to the Ocean City Juneteenth Organization.
On Saturday, residents poured into the cafeteria at the Ocean City High School to celebrate the historical and cultural legacy of Ocean City’s black community.
Organizers Brittany Battle, Josh Baker and Takiya Wilson, who grew up in Ocean City and are longtime friends, along with volunteers, work intensely to put on the event each year.
Every year, the event grows bigger and bigger, they noted.
“The turnout is amazing,” Battle said. “The best thing is to see the fellowship. I am so pleased to see all of the happiness and joy in this room.”
Baker said that the key is to spread awareness of the importance of the black community in Ocean City.
As part of the festivities, residents were honored for their work in the community and for being a part of the rich history and legacy of African Americans in the resort.
Those selected made various contributions to the community, including Mary Jane Granger, Philanthropic Leadership Award; Charlene Hemphill, Memorial Award; Daniel Lee Henry, Community Leadership Award; the late Bernice McClellan, Family Values Award; Tommy and Mary Miles, Business Leadership Award; Richard Tolson, Community Ally Award; and Reverend John T. Winters, Spiritual Leadership Award.
Sharon Miles, an Ocean City native, is the daughter of two of the recipients, Tommy and Mary Miles.
“My parents gave so much to the community,” Miles pointed out. “They instilled in us the importance of giving back and putting God first.”
In addition to the residents recognized, there was a special award presented to Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan for his part in making the city’s Juneteenth celebration possible.
It was a surprise honor bestowed on him.
Baker said McClellan is around for the Juneteenth organization members “Twenty-four hours a day offering support and encouragement.”
Baker added that McClellan is instrumental in ensuring that there is funding for Juneteenth by securing grants. The first year’s celebration was paid for by Baker.
McClellan told the audience that he was humbled by the honor and hopes to continue to help the black community in furthering awareness of its important history in the city.
“Thank you very much. I love you,” he told the crowd to applause.
Earlier, McClellan remarked that the event gets bigger and bigger and that Battle, Baker and Wilson are tireless in their efforts to help keep the history alive.
The event featured live music from BF Sounds. Minority small business owners showcased their wares at vendor tables. Video clips of Ocean City and some of the honorees and their families were shown.
There was also a Juneteenth scholarship fund ceremony called the Daniel Lee Henry Scholarship Award. Charlene Baker, Di’Avian Blackmon, Tori Rolls, Alencia Yeoman and Antonio Yeoman were the recipients.
In addition to giving scholarships to the youth, the Juneteenth organization also made a donation to the Cape May County Coalition Against Rape and Abuse.
There were several dignitaries and officials present, including Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, members of City Council, Freeholder E. Marie Hayes and Sheriff Bob Nolan.
Gillian said the event is an important part of the community.
“An event like this is like a high school reunion,” Gillian said in an interview. “It brings families back together. I love the generational aspects. The committee really worked tirelessly to make this possible.”
The mayor joked that he hopes McClellan, who is running for state Assembly, loses because he is such an important part of City Council.
Hayes said that she didn’t know much about Juneteenth until recently, thanks to the work of the event organizers.
She told the crowd that the event is about, “God, family and community.”
Hayes said of the Juneteenth celebration, “This needs to continue on forever.”