“Knowledge is power,” James Theus Jr. said, as he reminisced about the 35 Juneteenth programs he has helped put on in Jackson.
And it certainly was power for the last remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. The day Gen. Gordon Granger arrived and told them President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That knowledge, that had been held back for more than two years, gave them their freedom.
Theus says he started learning of his Black history in 1977.
“I was determined to learn because if I had been told a lie, or an untruth, I wanted to know,” Theus said.
By 1988, he and others founded the Society for African American Cultural Awareness, which started the Juneteenth Freedom Day, African Street Festival, and Kwanzaa celebrations in Jackson.
And while the first Juneteenth Celebration was small, Theus said it was “surprisingly well attended” and featured food, fellowship, and education about Black history.
For 32 years, that’s what the Juneteenth Celebration in Jackson looked like. Wendy Trice Martin, a leader for SAACA, says it moved locations almost every year, and was another stop for politicians on their campaigns.
However, after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, the celebration received more attention. Now, the event at T.R. White Sportsplex spills onto the street of Hays Ave. and hundreds of people come for the food, vendors, and education.
“You can’t have a celebration of Juneteenth without education and information. And if you’re doing it any other way, you’re not doing your ancestors any justice, or your community any justice,” Wendy Trice Martin said.
“And we still celebrate,” Theus said, “But, not only are we celebrating, we’re trying to prosper. We’re trying to create an environment where we will become more productive citizens of Jackson, Tenn. So it’s not just a celebration. It’s working towards something greater than Juneteenth. It’s working towards bringing our people together and creating a better society.”
At the 2023 Celebration, SAACA and the City of Jackson raised the Juneteenth flag at the TR White Sportsplex, a first for the city.
Theus hopes there will be many more “firsts” as well, as younger people in the community take over the responsibility he has held for so long.
“I have been studying history for 45 years,” Theus said, “I can’t be anything but proud. Because this is my life. It’s what I think about every day. How can I help improve the Jackson community?”
Julia Ewoldt, firstname.lastname@example.org