Herald//Catrina Rawson - West Boyd and Ira F. Bennett, both of Killeen, talk during the Juneteenth picnic, Saturday at Melba Jo Pioneer Park in Harker Heights.

By Hayley Kappes

Killeen Daily Herald

HARKER HEIGHTS – For Phyllis Jones, it's one thing to celebrate Juneteenth, but it's another to remember why a celebration exists in the first place.

"When slaves found out they were free, they were joyous, but at the same time scared and confused because for the past 400 years they had been in bondage," said Jones, president of Killeen's NAACP branch. "They learned how to educate themselves and it just shows what you can achieve."

Killeen's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9191 and Central Texas Messianic Family hosted a Juneteenth celebration and picnic at Melba Jo Pioneer Park in Harker Heights Saturday.

Music, plenty of food and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation drew several hundred guests, and marked the picnic's 20th anniversary.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of the words June and 19th, commemorates when Union Gen. Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to emancipate the state's slaves, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863.

"Every state found out at a different time," Jones said. "It took a couple of years after that for former slaves to raise enough money to begin celebrating Freedom Day."

Jones said passing Juneteenth traditions to youth is crucial for the holiday's survival. Three of her grandchildren are members of the youth NAACP.

"If no one tells their children the story, eventually it will get lost," said Elvis Irby, who helped grill hamburgers and brisket for the picnic. "The kids see what goes on here and will carry it on when we aren't here anymore."

Kaylynn Wilkerson, second vice president of Killeen's Youth NAACP branch and the daughter of Killeen City Councilman Ernest Wilkerson, said celebrating Juneteenth is an avenue for reflection on how far black Americans have come since emancipation.

"Juneteenth honors a very historical moment for the change we went through and were forced to endure," Wilkerson said.

Kimberly Valley, of Baton Rouge, La., was in town visiting her mother, and attended the picnic with her 6-year-old twin sons, Kyler and Tyler. Valley said she wants her sons to focus beyond the excitement of celebration.

"It gives them a chance to know how this all came about," Valley said. "We're remembering why we are here."

Contact Hayley Kappes at hayleyk@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559.

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