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Shout-out to history
The Telfair's Juneteenth Festival brings past, present and future together
The McIntosh County Shouters. - photo by Georgia Dept. of Economic Development


Vaughnette Goode-Walker, who's in charge of the Telfair Museum's Juneteenth celebration this week, wants to make one thing perfectly clear:

"There's no such thing as black history or white history," she says. "It's American history. And that's what this is, American history."

Juneteenth, which began in Texas after the end of the Civil War, celebrates Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation - and the end of slavery in this country.

Any Juneteenth festival, says Goode-Walker, the Telfair's Director of Cultural Diversity and Access, "is to educate the young people about the past and what it was. Not re-living the history, but showing what happened.

"If you don't know where you come from, how do you proceed? And that's a part of it."

Doesn't matter if you're black, white, green or aquamarine; "It's really just sharing the culture of Savannah that's been here for so long."

The McIntosh County Shouters, for example, have kept a centuries-old folkloric tradition alive. The nationally-renowned ensemble will perform on the tent stage Saturday during Family Day, the finale of the Telfair's Juneteenth celebration.

McIntosh County was a center for the Gullah - African American residents of the low country. The "ring shout" is a sort of musical fable, brought by South African slaves to the coastal areas. In the Gullah culture, "shouting" combines call-and-response singing, hand-clapping, percussion and a precise, choreographed rhythmic shuffle.

Bettye Ector is the onstage narrator for the Darien-based group. "I actually give some background to the song before the shouters start," she explains. "Actually, when we first started, my job was to give some narration so they would have time to rest between the songs. Because it's extremely tiring."

One reason it's tiring is that the senior member of the 10-person company is 90 years old; the youngest is 54.

It's all done in a circle. The "songster" begins the tale and sets the rhythm, the "stickman" keeps the rhythm on a wooden plank, using a specially-carved broomstick, while the "baseman" sings along with the female "shouters," who step in a counter-clockwise ring and pantomime the story being told.

The stories, which were traditionally relayed following prayer service, come from all aspects of slave life. "For instance," Ector explains, "we do one called ‘Blow Gabriel.' That's about Gabriel blowing his trumpet on Judgement Day. ‘Hold the Baby' talks about a mama trying to get her baby to be quiet, and she admonishes Dad, her husband, to hold the baby.

"In ‘Move Daniel,' they're having a party, and it's a way of the slaves telling Daniel to get around. He was supposed to steal the meat for the party, and the song tells him which way to go in order to keep from getting caught."

The McIntosh County Shouters perform in period costume - the men in overalls, the women in long cotton dresses and head wraps.

Family Day will also feature guest speakers, dancers and drummers, the re-enactment of a slave ceremony called "Jumping the Broom," and a "Living History" appearance by a local actor as Rev. Andrew C. Marshall (1756-1856), a leading citizen of Savannah during the years leading up to the Civil War.

Several historic Savannah homes are part of the Rev. Andrew C. Marshall Walking Tour, Wednesday and Friday, in the northeastern section of the historic district. The tour starts at the Owens-Thomas House, "the best example of a preserved urban slave quarters in the state of Georgia," Goode-Walker says.

Writer and activist Naomi Tutu, whose father is South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, will speak Friday at Second African Baptist Church.

Her topic: "Truth and Reconciliation: Healing Wounds."


Juneteenth Festival

Andrew C. Marshall Walking Tour: At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and Friday, June 17 and 19 (reservations required). Tour begins at the Owens-Thomas House, 124 Abercorn St.

Naomi Tutu: At 7 p.m. Friday, June 19 at Second African Baptist Church, 123 Houston St.

Family Day: At 10 a.m. Saturday, June 20 at the Owens-Thomas House. Activities include a children's tent, music and dance performances, storytelling and more.

Admission: All events are free

Phone: (912) 790-8880