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Juneteenth Celebrations Kickoff Across Birmingham With Calls For Unity, Music, Awards

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Jefferson County District Judge Ruby Davis hosted the 2nd Annual Juneteenth Empowerment Luncheon presented by the Dannon Project at the downtown Harbert Center. (Nicole Daniels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels and Nicole S. Daniel

The Birmingham Times

Juneteenth Weekend in Birmingham kicked off with a luncheon at the Harbert Center in downtown on Thursday and a breakfast at the Bill Harris Arena on the western side of the city on Friday.

Juneteenth is officially celebrated on June 19 in remembrance of the date that the last enslaved Black people in the U.S. were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

On Thursday, Jefferson County District Judge Ruby Davis hosted the 2nd Annual Juneteenth Empowerment Luncheon presented by the Dannon Project.

“Juneteenth marks the end of an ugly part of America’s history and that is slavery,” Davis told an audience of area trailblazers that included Miles College President Bobbie Knight. “So today is a celebration …  We are going to celebrate and honor our ancestors.”

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On Friday, hundreds of area leaders gathered at a Unity Breakfast, which featured awards to Jeff Peoples, chairman, president and CEO of Alabama Power Company; Dr. Calvin Woods, former president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, several others as well as musical performances. Catering was provided by Wenonah High School’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism.

Montiqua Mathers, who emceed the event, said the breakfast was a time of “jubilance.”

“[The remaining enslaved people] waited to hear the words that they had longed for all their lives. They long to hear the words, ‘we are free,’ and when they heard those words, they rejoiced. They celebrated the opportunity to have personal freedoms…” Mather said.

Elected officials in attendance included U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-07) Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, as well as Jefferson County Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson, who presented a $25,000 check to Cornerstone Revitalization Foundation Executive Director Dr. Michael Wesley Sr., who is also senior pastor of Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Wesley, whose Cornerstone Revitalization Foundation provides educational programming and workforce development for disadvantaged youth and adults, said Juneteenth is the perfect time to acknowledge the need for unity, which is needed in all facets of American life, he said.

“A lack of unity is really our problem. It’s the problem in the nation. It’s the problem in the church. It’s the problem in the community. It’s the problem in our homes. It’s a problem wherever we go. Unity is a fragile thing…it can be broken so easily,” Wesley said.

“If all people and organizations work together … understand that we’re committed to one thing, and that’s solving and making life better for people within our community, we can be unified,” he said.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin thanked Wesley for his “leadership” and said Juneteenth is also a time to remember the “heroic work, as well as the sacrifice, of foot soldiers, 60 years ago, in Birmingham.”

Sewell (AL-07) said “unity doesn’t mean that we have to all agree on everything. But unity does mean that we unite around our values because if we do that, we can move ourselves, our community and this nation forward.”

Bishop Stephen A. Davis, senior pastor of Refresh Family Church in the Huffman community and founder of Apostolic Global Impact, said his collaboration with Cornerstone, which focuses on Southwest Birmingham, is an example of working together.

“…you can do things that I cannot do,” he said about community stakeholders, “I can do things that you cannot do, but if we come together, we can get it all done. We may be sitting at separate tables, but it does not mean that we’re separate,” Davis said.

If people began to align themselves it is really a Juneteenth “like we’re making the announcement that we’re all free,” he said. “We’re all free to work together. We’re all free to come together, male or female, that officials and the clergy are free to come together on this Juneteenth. We’re all gifted in certain ways. We’re all called to certain areas,” he added.

Cornerstone also presented five awards during the event including the 2023 Diamond Humanitarian Award to Peoples; 2023 Civil Rights Legacy Award to Woods; 2023 Training & Student Advocacy Award – Birmingham Water Works; 2023 Spiritual Servant Award, Dr. William M. Norwood, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church; 2023 Civil Rights Legacy Award and the 2023 Education & Hospitality Award – George Sarris, owner and CEO of The Fish Market Restaurant and Yellow Bicycle Catering.

Empowerment Luncheon

Meanwhile, several area leaders from the business and civic communities were recognized during the 2nd Annual Juneteenth Empowerment Luncheon.

“The goal for today is that each of you leaves here educated, empowered, and inspired to change the world,” said Davis, the host. “Each of you have dreams, goals, and aspirations. Our prayer today is that something will be said that stirs up something inside of you.”

Knight President of Miles; Attorney Eric Guster, of Guster Law Firm and Krystal Bryant, owner of K&J Elegant Pastries were recognized during a luncheon with the theme “Reaping the Rewards of Rejection.”

Each was passed the “T.O.R.C.H.” Award — “Transcending Obstacles and Rejection Can Create Heroes” along with retired Honorable Judge Houston Brown.

Knight said she reaped the reward of rejection when she applied for law school in 1985.

“When I decided to go to law school I went to Birmingham School of Law to meet with the dean. He actually discouraged me from going there. When he did that I didn’t take no for an answer so I kept going back [until] they let me in,” said Knight, who was the first Black female to graduate from Birmingham School of Law.

Guster, who has amassed a sizeable real estate portfolio, reminded the audience that there will always be obstacles. “When you concentrate on you, you can overcome those obstacles,” he said.  He discussed the challenges he faced as a young attorney and every time he was “counted out, it led to other things.”

“When you have something bad happen to you, it’s how you handle it. Focus on yourself and keep those people close to you that will encourage you,” said Guster.

Bryant encouraged everyone to be knowledgeable about the industry they wanted to enter. “I was very knowledgeable about my craft but not so knowledgeable about the things my accountant was doing,” Bryant said.

But now, outside of baking cakes, she manages staff at locations in Birmingham and Hoover and handles other day to day operations.