OBERLIN — Recognizing the “great disaster” of the Atlantic slave trade, community members gathered for the roughly 25th annual Maafa Memorial Service at Westwood Cemetery on Friday evening.
The event honors those who died on the journey from Africa to the Americas, with the memorial in Oberlin marking those who passed through the city attempting to reach freedom in Canada. This year’s ceremony specifically recognized the children who suffered and died in the diaspora. It is part of the city’s Juneteenth celebrations, which mark June 19, 1865, when all those enslaved in Texas were freed, almost two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
This is chairperson Valerie Lawson’s first year heading the Juneteenth Committee, but the Maafa service is organized by Adenike Sharpley, who has spearheaded the program since its inception a quarter-century ago.
Lawson brought her granddaughter to the ceremony, in hopes she understands what the weekend’s commemorations are for.
“I wanted her to see all aspects of Juneteenth and understand what it’s all about,” she said. “That’s the whole point of dedicating it to the children, because I think they come down, have fun — but do they really know what’s going on?”
Sharpley welcomed attendees, noting this year’s theme is “children are our blessings.” The service is held at a monument for those who died in Oberlin on their way to freedom, marked with the name of a 4-year-old orphan, Lee Howard Dobbins, a fugitive slave in 1853.
“Every year we come here to mourn the holocaust that often isn’t spoken of,” Sharpley said.
Following a libation of the monument by Sharpley, the Rev. Roger Dickerson noted those in attendance Friday were looking back on history and the disaster and inhumanity within it. He said there are so many stories of slaves being “snatched up,” but no one knows the real truth anymore.
“This is abuse of humanity, knowing that you’re one of God’s people,” he said of the slave trade.
He added later, “We are the worst animal on earth because we don’t tell the truth. … There’s a lie everyday.”
The evening ended with attendees offering candles, prayers and flowers at the monument for the children, men and women whose lives were cut short in their search for freedom.
Following Friday’s solemn ceremony, Juneteenth continues in Oberlin today with a festival in Tappan Square from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.