Photos: Murfreesboro’s 2023 Juneteenth Celebration

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murfreesboro juneteenth
Photo by Lee Rennick

While Juneteenth has only been a national holiday for the last few years, folks in Murfreesboro have been celebrating with an annual community event for 20 years. This year was the largest festival there has ever been, although it has been steadily growing over the last few years.

“In the last few years it has really grown under the leadership of Vonchelle [Stembridge],” said Dr. Millicent Nelson, past Board Chair of the Bradley Academy Historical Society. “It’s a great way to have an event without going to Nashville.”

The celebration occurs in Murfreesboro on the city blocks around Bradley Academy and Cultural Center, a building that became a school for African American children after the Civil War. Bradley was originally built in 1806 to educate elite white males. In 1884, the building was handed over to the African American community to educate both males and females. The current structure was built in 1917 and opened as the new school for African American students in 1918, according to the organization’s website. Today, it houses an original classroom, a Civil War exhibit, and an exhibit about the early settlers of the City of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. It now runs as part of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation.

Once barely veering away from the Academy grounds, the Juneteenth Celebration now stretches over more than nine city blocks. Supported by the entire community, this year there were 100 booths, 12 food trucks, two stages for entertainment, and lots of activities for the kids and booths offering shopping and learning opportunities for adults.

Stembridge said that the growth in the size of the event is thanks to so many community partnerships. These partners include Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Murfreesboro Medical Clinic, and the Tennessee Titans.

“Earlier today we had both the Tennessee Titans and the MTSU cheerleaders perform,” said Stembridge.

Donivous Odom, this year’s Titan’s cheerleading captain, just happens to be Stembridge’s husband. He is the very first male cheerleader in the entire National Football League (NFL). He just returned from the NFL Pro Bowl. She is very proud that her husband represents the breaking down of barriers and changing times.

She is also proud of the growth of Murfreesboro’s Juneteenth Celebration. Having a very tiny staff, just she and one other person, she relies heavily on various community groups to help bring everything together. She has the support of the City of Murfreesboro and the Parks and Recreation department, but it is members of Bradley Academy Historic Society, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Made Men and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority who have been there to help get things pulled together. Members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and Made Men, a private motorcycle club that is also devoted to community service, were a huge help in both setting up and tearing down.

“I have to thank them, as well as my family and girlfriends,” said Stembridge. “I could not have done it without them.” 

With the day being hot and steamy, Stembridge is also thankful for all of the groups and organizations who brought water to hand out to visitors. It kept everyone healthy and hydrated. And Middle Tennessee Medical Center was handing out chilled towels as a neck wrap, as well as, providing any needed medical services.

Both Stembridge and Nelson discussed the diversity of people and organizations having booths at the event. Many were local small business owners who ran home-based businesses. Having a booth at the event gave them more exposure.

“A booth is only $35,” noted Nelson, “but they have to bring all of their own stuff. We do it to provide exposure to small businesses and organizations. Some people are selling things, but a lot of our booths are providing information.”

One booth that had an interesting story to tell was that run by the Stones River National Battlefield. They featured the story of William Holland, a former slave and Civil War soldier, at their booth.

“His story is a story that represents the foundation of Juneteenth,” explained Jim Lewis, a long-time park ranger and interpretative speaker for the Stones River National Battlefield. “He was born a slave, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, became a Union soldier, was captured and returned to slavery, escaped, and died a freed man buried on his own property.”

Lewis and his team have been researching Holland’s story for some time, and they were recently connected to one of his relatives who provided them with a photo of him in his later years as a landowner. This relative also has information they will soon be sharing about one of Holland’s grandsons who was a World War I veteran, and is buried next to Holland in the family cemetery in Murfreesboro.

While there were plenty of other booths offering information about African American heritage in the county, many provided kids’ activities and information about everything from joining the Marines to learning about Medicare and Medicaid.

Best of all, there was lots of food and entertainment. In previous years there were only five food trucks, but this year there were 12, including Franklin’s Tea Company, which sponsored the second stage.

On the main stage, located in front of Bradley Academy, music was provided by an assortment of bands, and a DJ got people dancing in the street.

“This was our largest Juneteenth Celebration so far,” added Stembridge, “but I want it to be even bigger next year!”

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