Left to right: Chakira Johnson, Elaine Vaughn, and Jasmine Little at Stone Mountain. Photo by Phil Mosier.

Elaine Vaughn’s earliest memories of Ku Klux Klan marches through Stone Mountain Village take her back to the age of 6.

“We were kids and they never, never bothered us,” Vaughn said of the Klan marches and rallies that continued into the 1980s in Stone Mountain. “The only thing my mom would say when she found out the Klan was coming, usually around Labor Day, … was go to bed, come inside, keep quiet. We did that, had no problems.”

Today, in the shadow of the mountain on whose top the Ku Klux Klan was rebirthed in 1915 and whose face bears the world’s largest memorial to the Confederacy, Vaughn is helping to carve a new legacy. She’s on the planning committee for the city of Stone Mountain’s first-ever Juneteenth Festival.

Officially recognized in most states and a paid county holiday in DeKalb County, Juneteenth is an annual observance that celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S.

Its name is a blend of the date it commemorates—June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally heard that the Civil War had ended, more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had made them free.

Vaughn is a lifelong, third-generation resident of Shermantown, a historic Black neighborhood in the village of Stone Mountain. The first church there, Bethsaida Baptist, was organized in 1868, and the neighborhood’s name refers to Union General William T. Sherman.

“I’m just excited. I am so glad they asked me to be on the committee,” said Vaughn, 67.

“The reason I’m glad they’re having this is so the generation that’s coming now can at least get a glimpse of what it felt like when our ancestors were freed … and even the adults, I hope it will give them something to think about. It’s time out for separation,” she said.

‘An important day for all Americans’
Stone Mountain’s celebration is one of many Juneteenth events planned across metro Atlanta, as promotion of the holiday grows around the nation.

Juneteenth is an official paid holiday for state employees in Texas and several other states, but not in Georgia. Last year, DeKalb County commissioners voted unanimously to make Juneteenth an annual paid county holiday, effective this year.

DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who sponsored the legislation, said her action was inspired by “everything that was happening in this country—the killings, the hatred, the mean-spiritedness. It’s like some people would want to go back to the days of slavery.”

She hopes to see Juneteenth become a federal holiday to recognize the contributions of enslaved people to the development of the U.S. and to remind everyone to appreciate their freedom.

“We’ve seen how close that freedom is to being taken back,” Johnson said. “We came very close to losing democracy, and that makes you think.”

Stone Mountain Mayor Pro Tem Chakira Johnson and City Councilmember Jasmine Little led the charge for Stone Mountain’s 2020 recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday in the city and both serve on the planning committee for the inaugural festival.

“I think Juneteenth is being embraced because, in my opinion, and it’s very true, the country’s true Independence Day is when the last slaves were freed,” Chakira Johnson said. “So it’s not just an important day for the Black community, it should be an important day for all Americans. It should be considered a very patriotic day.”

Longtime Stone Mountain Mayor Pat Wheeler said she’s “excited that they’re able to do it.”

“It’s really gotten a lot of people in town involved, especially in the Shermantown area,” she said. “I think it’s going to be good for the community because it’s going to bring people in who’ve probably never even been here before.”

Tony Maddox’s family are third-generation residents of Shermantown, a historic Black neighborhood in the village of Stone Mountain. “The Ku Klux Klan used to march in front of my house on their way to meetings [at the mountain] back in the day, and we never paid them no mind,” he said. Photo by Phil Mosier.

Getting past the KKK
The observance reflects continuing signs of change in the little city of 6,300 people, now about 78 percent Black, according to a U.S. Census estimate.

In 2019, a road that was named for a family that once owned Stone Mountain and had historical ties to the Ku Klux Klan was renamed from Venable Street to Eva Mamie Lane. The new name honors the legacies of Shermantown pillars Eva Jewell Greene and her daughter Mamie Ella Lane.

Chakira Johnson hopes the Juneteenth celebration helps paint a new picture of her town, which has no control or management ties to Stone Mountain Park.

“We struggle with showing that we are no longer that city that housed the KKK and allowed them to march down the streets of our city,” she said. “We have become a diverse and inclusive community, so to be able to host something like the Juneteenth Festival … is one way to show who we truly are as a community now. We are not that negative past. We are a growing and thriving community … and we welcome everybody.”

Mereda Davis Johnson, the DeKalb commissioner, shared her thoughts on that.

“Like the song goes, ‘everything must change,’” she said. “The Ku Klux Klan is the history of Stone Mountain. Juneteenth is the future.”

Celebrations
Juneteenth Festival at Stone Mountain Village
Saturday, June 19, from 6-9 p.m.
Plans include a festival on Main Street featuring local dignitaries, live music, choirs, vendors, African drummers and dancers, a cultural exhibit and fireworks. For more information, send an email to juneteenth@stonemountaincity.org. Find the event on Facebook.

Juneteenth events in metro Atlanta
Atlanta History Center
This month’s virtual Juneteenth activities will be supplemented by a month-long program honoring Black innovation, creativity, and activism. Events include:
-Author Talk on June 7 with Annette Gordon-Reed about her new book, On Juneteenth.
-A panel discussion on June 21 about C.T. Vivian’s posthumously published memoir, titled It’s In the Action, with co-author Steve Fiffer, Al Vivian, and Ambassador Andrew Young.

Juneteenth Atlanta Parade & Music Festival.
This ninth annual event will be held June 18-20 at Centennial Olympic Park, from 1-10 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Event includes a Black History Parade, a live performance by Arrested Development, a cultural arts amphitheater, two music stages, an artist’s market, vendors, food trucks and family activities. Produced by Juneteenth Atlanta, a nonprofit organization. Free admission.

The United Ebony Society of Gwinnett County.
This organization, which works to build a stronger community that embraces diversity, will hold a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rhodes Jordan Park, 100 East Crogan St., Lawrenceville, Ga. 30046. The “family fun-filled event” includes performances, music, historical presentations, vendors and food trucks. Free admission.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.