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24 years ago, he brought Juneteenth to Charlotte. Today, he wants to see unity.

24 years ago, he brought Juneteenth to Charlotte. Today, he wants to see unity.
24 years ago, he brought Juneteenth to Charlotte. Today, he wants to see unity.(Charlotte Observer)
Updated: Jun. 19, 2021 at 4:12 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - When Pape Ndiaye first arrived in Charlotte in 1997, the Juneteenth celebration was nowhere to be found in the city. So he started the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas on Thomas Avenue – which he calls the birthplace of all Juneteenth celebrations in the Carolinas.

Ndiaye runs the House of Africa gallery in Plaza Midwood, where he held the festival for the first seven years and returned a few years ago after moving it to Independence Park. For over two decades, the festival has brought artists, musicians, and vendors from around the world to Charlotte. To Ndiaye, that speaks to the significance of Juneteenth: a time for the community to share with each other in the spirit of freedom, unity and togetherness.

“My grandmother used to say that when you travel, you need to get the direction,” Ndiaye said. “Culture and heritage are the only directions that can help you move forward.”

PATH TO AFRICAN CULTURE

Ndiaye, a native of Senegal, arrived in the U.S. not knowing Juneteenth’s history. As he traveled around, he saw it being celebrated in a lot of different places — but not Charlotte. That’s when he started to host the festival with the help of friends, including Pride Magazine publisher Dee Dixon, and the late Marilyn Turner, the first chairperson of the festival who served from 1997 to 2006.

This year, the festival will be a four-day celebration, featuring events such as a peaceful march, fashion show, Juneteenth prayer and youth camp. As Ndiaye was busy preparing for the festival in the gallery on Friday, 62-year-old Dwayne Gross stopped by. He moved to Charlotte from New York when Ndiaye started the festival and has been actively involved in it since. To Gross, Ndiaye introduced him to a new world of his own descent.

“Africans in America had the whole slavery thing and all that, but there wasn’t a lot of cultural aspect going on,” he said. “Pape [Ndiaye] was giving you a different perspective on our culture. He would tell stories, the history of the masks, and people were really attracted to them.”

Gross grew up during the Malcolm X and Black Panther era. “We didn’t know about Africa and where we came from, and that just wasn’t our original country.”

But the longing to learn about his ancestors has always intrigued him. In kindergarten, Gross said, James Baldwin once came to speak at his class. “I remember him telling us that you are more than what they tell you. You come from kings and queens, and you come from kingdoms — I never forgot that.”

Ndiaye – and the Juneteenth Festival – for many offered the closest route for the Charlotte community to form a connection with Africa. Khadim Soung, a fashion designer who lives in Dakar, Senegal, flew to Charlotte this summer to help Ndiaye with the fashion ceremony during the festival. In a venue next to House of Africa, artistically designed Senegalese Boubous, a type of traditional light garment clothing in Senegal, were displayed over the chairs and desks.

A HISTORY UNFOLDED

The community in turn has helped Ndiaye to turn the festival into today’s scale. Historian and activist Makheru Bradley met Ndiaye as a customer at House of Africa, and they soon became friends as the festival started in Charlotte. For 24 years, he helped Ndiaye document the festival’s history, including talking to media, engaging in public speaking and writing about Juneteenth history.

In Charlotte, Bradley said, the history of Juneteenth is a process of discovering. He used the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre of Black residents, homes and businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma as an example. “A very small group of historians discovered the information and put it out, then spread it to other people. It eventually spread to the masses and became something that is recognized and popular,” he said.

Junteenth was the same. Charlotte’s festival started with fewer than 100, and gradually grew to today’s scale, where it attracts more than 20,000 from around the city and state every year. During the festival’s first few years, many came to ask Ndiaye about Juneteenth. Not anymore, he said.

FEDERAL RECOGNITION IS NOT ENOUGH

On Thursday, two days before this year’s Juneteenth, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Bradley said that the move is the result of the growing awareness that pushes for reparations for African Americans and responses to the murder of George Floyd last year. However, he also said that acknowledgment is only one part of the process towards reparation. “Acknowledgment without repairing the damage that was done — to restore people to the original unimpaired condition — just becomes an isolated entity if it’s not with other positive processes towards reparation,” Bradley said.

“We didn’t need federal recognition to start celebrating Juneteenth. ... This was a product of the agency of African people, an act of self-determination. We decided that this was something we were going to do.”

A HOME OF UNITY

After two decades of living and running House of Africa in Charlotte, Ndiaye calls the city his second home. At this year’s Juneteenth Festival, he wants to use arts and education to show the community power of unity and togetherness.

“I wasn’t born and raised in America, and I’m not part of the American culture. But at Charlotte, I feel like I am part of this community,” he said. “Like I say all the time, Juneteenth is not just an African American holiday, but it is a part of American history.”

Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas events span from Thursday to Sunday. The opening ceremony was held on the evening of Friday followed by a drum circle. On Saturday, the day of Juneteenth, participants will join each other at 9 a.m. for the Juneteenth Freedom & Unity March, a peaceful march from Grady Cole Center on Kings Drive to House of Africa on Thomas Avenue.

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