BEAUFORT — Residents and visitors kicked off the new decade with the county’s annual observation and celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

“It’s been 365 days since we’ve been here last,” said Ronald Murrell, the event’s master of ceremonies. “Many, many things have happened since the last time we were here.”

Put on by the African American Historical Cultural Educational Society, the observation event has become a Beaufort tradition and is held each year on New Year’s Day. Similar to past years, Carteret County’s courthouse played venue to Wednesday’s event, which featured musical performances by members of the Community Male Choir and talks from various community leaders. 

The roughly hour-long event featured prayer and songs and maintained an aesthetic similar to a church revival. This, according to several of the event’s speakers, underscored the church’s importance in both the black community and ongoing liberation efforts. 

“The leaders of the slaves prior to the Emancipation Proclamation … were our clergy,” Beaufort Town Commissioner Sharon Harker said. “The church was very important to our African American community.” 

Milton Tripp touched on the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that started the legal domino effect that would eventually lead to the end of slavery in the United States. 

“Sometimes we need to go through the fire,” Mr. Tripp said. “Sometimes we need to have that experience.” 

Near the beginning of the ceremony, Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton touched on slavery’s impact to community, specifically Beaufort. 

“Beaufort became a gateway to freedom,” Mayor Newton said. “Beaufort became the second largest free-slave community in North Carolina.” 

Mayor Newton also touched on the importance of remaining aware of history, even if it’s difficult to reconcile with. 

“I was advised that at Ocean View Cemetery, which was built in 1899, there is a clear wall that’s right down the middle of (the cemetery),” Mayor Newton said. “Many of you knew this. I did not; it was not in my history lesson growing up. That wall separated the whites from the blacks.

“My initial reaction was to tear down that wall … but some advice from some of you in the community here said (the wall represents us) still having work to do,” he noted.  

Gerald Godette gave his thoughts on the Gettysburg Address, another famous document inextricably linked with former President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement. Mr. Godette said there were certain messages President Lincoln was trying to convey in the speech. 

“At some point we need to come together … and understand just what was in the mind of President Abraham Lincoln when he wrote the Gettysburg Address,” Mr. Godette said, later quoting from the address, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

The Rev. Lynn Godette presented Jennie Garcia, the morning's keynote speaker. Ms. Garcia said there can be a distinct line drawn between the emancipated population and its descendants. 

“When I speak of slavery, I do not mean physical bondage,” Ms. Garcia said. “I speak of slavery of the mind. After freedom, then what? Freedom is not free. The cries of the people were heard far beyond the ears of time.” 

Part of the ceremony, the candle lighting vigil, was dedicated to nine individuals who recently died and left a positive legacy in the Beaufort community: Ophelia Hodge, Muriel Williams, Sarah Windly, Emily Collymore, Winston Collymore, Gwendolyn Fisher, Dorothy Simmons, Richella Walker and Glenda Wilder.

In a special dedication, Perry Harker, another event participant, honored Dr. William Ellison. 

“People in the community know him well,” Mr. Harker said. “He is very interested in showing our rich African American history is recognized, documented and celebrated.” 

Though Mr. Ellison was not in attendance, Mr. Harker accepted a commemorative certificate on his behalf.

Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.

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