COLUMBIA — The Gospel was the first course at Saturday's picnic.
The tables were laden with potato salad, apple pie, fried chicken and roasted whole hog cut right from the bone. Servers wearing light blue St. Paul A.M.E. Church T-shirts stood at attention, ready to pull back the aluminum foil.
It was words of faith, though, that began the annual Juneteenth celebration at Douglass Park on Saturday afternoon. Before the buffet began, R.J. Thornton, pastor of Step of Faith Ministries, offered a prayer, and choir members of the Sugar Grove Baptist Church performed.
“I’m glad I know who Jesus is,” they sang.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when slavery in the United States was officially ended — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
People gather for Juneteenth at Douglass Park every year. But themes of togetherness were especially relevant at this year’s celebrations, which take place in the context of ongoing efforts to reclaim the streets of Columbia from a spate of violence.
The crowds filled the shelter of the park at the celebration, and every parking lot space was taken.
“Unity got rid of slavery, got rid of Jim Crow laws,” Urban Empowerment Ministries member Darlayna Scott said. “Unity’s taking back our community.”
Scott said she felt even more strongly about attending Juneteenth this year to speak out against youth violence.
“We are taking back what belongs to us. No, we don’t want to see another youth die,” Scott said.
The event's history highlighted the need for community cohesion.
Harry Williams, pastor of Sugar Grove Baptist Church, said his church’s ancestors came out of slavery.
“We came out of that history knowing the need for unity in the church and unity in the family,” he said.
Throughout the event, Thornton moved through the crowd “ministering in love” — just talking and sharing the Gospel with people — he said.
“It’s very important to come meet people where they’re at,” he said. Churches have to move outside their comfort zone, he said.
Two white police officers also moved through the crowd, talking with people at the event and sampling the buffet.
One stood on the side of the gathering and licked his fingers as he ate a fried chicken wing, as the other laughed and shook hands with a performer.
Scott has attended Juneteenth in Douglass Park for years. This year the churches and police are more involved than before, she said.
Mother Avant – as Jacquelyn Avant is known by her church – reflected on this year’s event from under a tree and nodded in approval.
“This is a different Juneteenth atmosphere,” she said. “This is a godly explosion.”
The annual Juneteenth celebration will continue Sunday with a basketball game between Columbia’s black barbershops at 10 a.m. and a talent show from 3 to 7 p.m.