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'Seeking Justice': Juneteenth Commemorated With Reenactment In Warren County

 In "Seeking Justice" Tywayne Ball portrays Jerome Hunter in a 1921 Warren County Courtroom after the "Norlina Riots."
In "Seeking Justice" Tywayne Ball portrays Jerome Hunter in a 1921 Warren County Courtroom after the "Norlina Riots."

Since the murder of George Floyd last summer, Juneteenth has taken on a more celebratory, but urgent tone in African American communities. Gatherings with friends and family marking when the last enslaved Black people found out they were free, compete with citywide events.

Even the U.S. government is joining the party. President Joe Biden signed a bill this week making Juneteenth a national holiday.

Joseph McGill is the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, and the History and Culture Coordinator at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. For the first time, McGill will be in Galveston, Texas, on Juneteenth – June 19 – where the celebration began.

McGill is also a Civil War reenactor, representing the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-African American Civil War unit. Black Union troops were instrumental in enforcing the order delivered in Texas demanding “absolute equality” among enslaved people and slave owners.

“I’ll be in my Civil War uniform reenacting what one of the soldiers did,” said McGill. “I will get a document handed to me. I will read that document. I will pin that document to the wall.”

Another historical reenactment performed leading up to Juneteenth was the dramatization called “Seeking Justice.” A group of Warren County, North Carolina, residents brought to life a 1921 court hearing where 16 Black men were arrested for rioting and assault.

The gunfight, known as the “Norlina Riot,” started after two Black men tried to return rotten apples they purchased from a white shop keeper. Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams were later lynched and murdered. No white men were charged.

“This ain’t justice! No complete justice!” said actor Tywayne Ball, playing the part of Jerome Hunter. Hunter, a Black man, was shot and returned fire during the riot and was later convicted and sentenced to several years of hard labor.

“Those cowards came and busted Plummer and Alfred out of jail and murdered them!” said Hunter, during the play. “And left them on the side of the road like dead, rotten pigs.”

Thomas Park wrote and directed “Seeking Justice,” with the help of the UNC Chapel Hill Descendants Project. Park said knowing the plight of many Blacks once slavery legally ended was emotional.

“There’s another emotion that developed in me, probably something I was actually trying to suppress,” said Park. “You still want to say, these things didn’t happen.”

Fifty miles south of Warren County, in Wake County, Kevin Jones dropped a little Black history knowledge at Wooten’s Barbershop in Wendell.

“I am so happy Juneteenth got its recognition though, for so long it was Fourth of July,” said Jones, comparing America’s Independence Day with the day enslaved people were freed. “Those are the things you want to tell your children.”

Jones will spend Juneteenth like he has for the past several years, with hundreds of Black men, at the North Carolina Fatherhood Conference. It’s virtual this year. Jones said, in these times, he works to be very honest and open with his son and stepson.

“I have to be direct, as you get older, things are going to change. Things are not going to be fair,” said Jones. “Trying to be a hero, our Black boys are not making it home. You have purpose.”

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.