CANTON — Dozens of people gathered in jackets and under umbrellas on a rainy afternoon Saturday to celebrate Juneteenth at the Mill on Etowah in Canton, with food, music and vendors from Black-owned businesses.

The Rev. Joseph Cousin, pastor of Allen Temple AME Church in Woodstock and president of the Cherokee County NAACP, said this was the first time that he knew of that there was a public celebration in Cherokee County for Juneteenth. The day marks the end of slavery in the United States.

“It shows that we are hopefully finding more compassion in terms of recognizing the end of slavery, and recognizing the march towards freedom and the march towards hope, and the march toward equality,” he said. “It’s not just African Americans out here, it’s a diverse group out here, showing we are working together to make the world a better place.”

Organized by the Cherokee County Democrats, the event saw about 70 attendees, said Sandra Williams, the local party’s secretary. Williams is also the executive director of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council.

“We’re proud to be able to come together in a time of divisiveness in our country, to say, let’s celebrate one another,” Williams said.

The local celebration came after President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

The rain didn’t stop visitors from sitting or standing on the green to hear classic jazz hits from Laurieann Jazzwine, or watch interpreters translating the songs into American Sign Language.

Among them was Canton Mayor Bill Grant, who met with families on the green. He said next year, the city will recognize the holiday “in some form.”

“The only thing worse than freedom denied is delayed freedom, denied, and so I want to celebrate — diversity has been really important to me — to celebrate the diversity in the community, and spend time with my friends,” he said.

Grant said “it’s about time” Juneteenth was established as a national holiday.

“It snuck up on us this year, so hopefully next year will be a much bigger celebration we can prepare for,” he said.

Speakers included Otha Thornton, former National PTA president and 2018 Democratic state superintendent candidate, and Helen Butler, executive director of voting rights group The Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.

Thornton briefly discussed critical race theory, which was recently banned by the Cherokee County school board. The theory, also called CRT, holds that race is a social construct and racism is embedded in institutions.

“Race: Black, white, Asian, those are social constructs, OK?” he said. “But all of us are really family and that’s the way we need to look at things as we move forward. If you look at each other as family, you’ll take care of each other better.”

Butler praised Georgia’s large voter turnout in November and in January’s Senate runoff but said “we can’t stop now,” encouraging everyone to exercise their right to vote. She pointed to a field director helping with voter registration.

“She can help you get registered to vote so that you'll be able to cast your vote, but more importantly you need to know who’s running for office, so get involved,” she said.

Janine Morris, who grew up in Canton’s historically Black Pea Ridge community, came from North Carolina to visit family for Father’s Day weekend and said it was “huge” to see a local observance of Juneteenth.

“I just wanted to show support to the community,” she said. “I’m glad that it happened, even with the weather.”

A federal recognition of Juneteenth was overdue “for some probably 300 years,” Woodstock resident Clyde Rivers said.

“This is the combination of a lot of effort to say we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go, but we are free in America,” he said. “I thought (the Canton event) was excellent. I loved the entertainment, the jazz...I never thought I would see the day when we would have jazz in Cherokee County. The population’s changing. Get used to it, we’re here to stay.”

Juneteenth dates to June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the news that slaves were free to the last African Americans still enslaved in the Confederacy, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

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