MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Cape May County on Saturday began a new tradition.

At least 100 people made their way to the Martin Luther King Community Center in Whitesboro within the first two hours of the township’s inaugural Juneteenth festival.

Organized by the Cape May County chapter of the NAACP and Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, the event was conceived June 10. Members of the organizations, in collaboration with Middle Township officials and other community leaders, quickly got to work.

“We had a rally in Cape May Court House, and then we had a rally in Wildwood,” Cape May County NAACP Vice President Quanette Vasser-McNeal said. “(After the rallies) we came together as a chapter and had a strategic planning meeting just to go over where we go from here, at which point we came up with the idea to come up with a Juneteenth event.”

Juneteenth recognizes the day Union Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that all Texas slaves were free. Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation going into effect Jan. 1, 1863, the Union’s low presence in Texas allowed slavery to persist for another 2½ years.

Saturday’s festivities included food, music and activities for children. A voter registration table was also set up for those in attendance.

Mayor Tim Donohue on Monday said June 19 will be formally recognized in the township as Juneteenth Day. He read the proclamation in front of the crowd Saturday.

“I kind of knew the history of Juneteenth, but what I didn’t really grasp was the importance of it to the African American community and the pride that was involved,” Donohue said. “So as we learn, we need to adapt. If somebody goes, ‘Well, why are you doing this now?’ (I say), ‘Well, I just learned about it.’ I can’t change the past.”

The past year has been a revitalization period for the county’s NAACP branch, which had previously been active for a decade. President Alexander Bland, who is the youngest NAACP branch president at 30, has been pleased with the organization’s progress on getting back in gear.

“We didn’t really start until January,” Bland said. “Then we did our February meeting; and then in March, we got hit with COVID. We’re still trying to figure things out among these crazy times, but I think we’re doing pretty good considering all things.”

The location of the festival was also significant. Founded in 1901, Whitesboro was created as a self-reliant Black community to avoid racial discrimination. George Henry White, an attorney and the community’s namesake, was the leading investor.

With the event going so smoothly despite having had a limited amount of time to prepare, Vasser-McNeal was confident it could be a much bigger, annual festival.

That would be appreciated and needed, James Hutchins said.

“I think it’s very important,” said Hutchins, 34. “I think, as a community, we need to really get back to remembering ourselves, our roots, being able to embrace the whole entirety of the community, not the Black community, and just have people really understand our history and the things that we go through.”

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