Performers provided hours of music during Bluffton’s Juneteenth festival June 17 at Burnt Church Distillery. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Early summer heat did not deter crowds from attending Bluffton’s three-day Juneteenth weekend celebrations, held June 17-19. There were plenty of people out and about enjoying a summer holiday.

“I totally enjoyed myself in Bluffton, and I didn’t go out on Saturday until about 6 p.m. It was awesome,” said Bluffton resident Monique Frazier. “I used to host it, and I remember when we might have had two vendors at the Oyster Factory. It was one of those things you spent 20 minutes at, get something to eat, and leave. The last two years have been incredible, and I was looking forward to this year.”

Juneteenth commemorates when General Order No. 3 was delivered to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, declaring all slaves in that state were free. The order was two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that declared “all persons held as slaves” in the seceded states were free from Jan. 1, 1863.

President Joseph R. Biden signed legislation in 2021 marking Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Celebrations of the day have spread from Galveston across the nation, and the festivities in Bluffton have also grown, according to Frazier.

The Friday evening event celebrated Black Food Truck Friday, with mobile food vendors gathering at Bluffton’s Eagle’s Field on Buck Island Road. Among the variety of food choices were Brielle’s Catering & Special Events; Big Dawgz Grub; Chef B’s Eatz; Melly Mel’s; Red Stripes Caribbean Cuisine & Lounge; and Lawyers BBQ and Sweets, LLC.

Food wasn’t the only thing going Friday. Those feeling lucky could participate in either the spades or cornhole tournaments.

On Saturday, the festival was held at Burnt Church Distillery from 4 to 10 p.m. and those hardy or crazy enough to arrive early in the heat were treated to many of the same food trucks plus more as well as a wide variety of vendors offering products from apothecary items to décor.

Music – and of course dancing – were a huge part of Saturday’s fun, and a drum circle, a DJ and the Promised Land Band provided all the impetus needed for inspiration and exhilaration.

Lynn Gerson, a newcomer to the Bluffton area, found the experience Saturday “humbling.”

“Coming from California, this was my first one. I’d heard of Juneteenth celebrations before but never had I had the opportunity to attend one,” she said. “The drum circle when we got there was so inspirational, so emotional. There was a historic appreciation for not only the Black people, but when you see how they came to be in America, where they are today, the strength of these people – particularly the women – and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything as empowering in and of itself, encouraging, hopeful.”

A willing participant in mingling and enjoying an icy treat, Gerson and her companion soon found themselves dancing. After all, who can turn down a lively beat and “Community Sistah” Sharon Brown’s enthusiastic encouragement?

“It was awesome. The music was fantastic, the way people came together with the dancing from the old to the young, young teaching the old, appreciation for those of us who just couldn’t keep in step,” Gerson said, laughing. For relief from the heat, the women bought icy treats from G-Ma On Ice, and then wandered around looking at the vendors. They were tempted by fried crab, BBQ and fried chicken before finding themselves in front of Brown Girls Designs, and debating about which design they wanted on a T-shirt.

Gerson felt she got a great deal out of attending the event, even though the heat curtailed her stay.

“In addition to a fabulous T-shirt that reminds me of the type of person that I want to be, I came away with a renewed sense of responsibility to give back to America, to give back to my neighbors,” she said.

The celebration continued at the Distillery Sunday morning with a Juneteenth Father’s Day brunch and mimosa bar, featuring the Promised Land Band, all of which earned more high praise from Frazier.

“I went to the brunch the next day, and I totally enjoyed myself there. I am looking forward to next year’s,” Frazier said. “Promised Land was great! Oh, my gosh, they all played different instruments. We had a good time, and it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. I am totally looking forward to next year.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.