Saturday, June 18, was “Freedom Day”, a street fair that culminated the annual three-day Juneteenth Festival organized by Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation’s Vonchelle Stembridge. This year the street fair stretched out for three blocks in front of Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center, instead of the usual one block, allowing for more craft and community vendors, more dancing and music, and more food vendors.
“Juneteenth is the celebration of the emancipation of the last group of slaves in Texas after the Civil War,” explained Stembridge, Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center Site Coordinator. “The very first celebration took place on June 19, 1866 in Galveston. At our annual celebration here in Murfreesboro, we have storytelling, music, activities for kids, educational events, craft vendors, an author night, and U.S. Colored Troops reenactors.”
One of her favorite parts of her job is to coordinate special events for the community, and Juneteenth is one that has become a labor of love. The Murfreesboro celebration was originally created in 2004 by Carolyn Pearson with the help of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Board of Directors of the Bradley Academy Historical Association. The event was taken over by the City of Murfreesboro about 2015 or 2016, and Stembridge took over the festival in 2017. In 2021, it became a three-day event.
Stembridge and her team work hard to make the event inclusive for the whole community, and all ages. Inclusivity is part of the mission of the museum, and she makes sure that is true of not only of Juneteenth, but all of the events that take place in and around the building.
Murfreesboro’s Juneteenth Celebration began on Thursday, June 16 with an author’s night meet and greet at the Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center. It included discussions and book signings by local African American authors, including Diane Brown, Carmen Maples, Margaret McKinley, Mary Watkins, Darryl Webb, Jayda Freeman, Taneka “Sparkle” Robinson, and Michael Dillard. The featured author was Michael Dillard, the writer of “Accidental Success”. His book was inspired by what he learned from being unemployed on a Friday and becoming a diplomat the following Monday. His vision and ability to listen to his inner voice led him to a career where he traveled the world. With a little help from friends, he wrote the book and it is now available on Amazon. Author night was a free event with refreshments and giveaways offered.
On Friday, June 17, Bradley Academy offered a resource night called “Kaleidoscope” where the community could get information about and network with businesses and organizations whose purpose is to aid the mind, body and/or spirit.
Saturday’s street party was the final event. There were many small businesses with booths selling their handcrafts, artwork, and other goods like African themed clothing and jewelry. Mary Watkins, who was also one of the authors, was on hand selling her artwork. Many local organizations were also present, like Oaklands Mansion and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“It was a great day,” said Susie Mae of Susie Mae Soaps, as things were winding down for the evening.
Nancy and David Loucky, who were on hand representing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also had nothing but good things to say for the event. “People were having a really good time,” added David.
Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center is the perfect location for the event, as it has a long history beginning 213 years ago. At that time, it was started as a school for the sons of Middle Tennessee society’s elite. Closed in 1850, when all of its students transferred to Union University, also in Murfreesboro, it sat empty until 1884 when it was transformed into a school for African-American students. It then became a gathering place for the black community in Murfreesboro.
“Being able to work at Bradley Academy means a lot to me,” explained Stembridge, “as my grandfather and grandmother went to school in the building I now manage.”