By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on June 20, 2022
Held at the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo, the marking of the nation’s second annual Juneteenth national holiday was an afternoon of celebration.
The June 19 gathering brought a diverse group of people together to mark the joy of freedom, as it was on June 19, 1865 that 2,000 Union forces landed in Galveston, Texas and enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing 250,000 enslaved people.
Darrell Collins, President of the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum Board, reminded the crowd marking the event of the horrific history of slavery in the United States.
“We remember [those] who perished on the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, stacked like cords of wood, whose names are known only to God, but whose stories will never be forgotten,” he said. “We also remember all the African American slaves and their struggle to be free, who helped build this great nation…”
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Senate Michelle Lewis brought a perspective to the day based on the song Strange Fruit. Sung by Billie Holliday and Nina Simone, the song, with its powerful lyrics condemning racism, was one of the first popular songs to draw attention to the plight of African Americans in the 20th century.
Lewis went on to offer a stark view of the cost of racism and violence in modern America —pointing to such horrors as the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Uvalde Texas and Buffalo, NY. But she ended on a note of hope, saying, “It is light shining in the darkness. It is celebration as protest. It is Juneteenth.”
Although the historic perspective of the day was an important part of what was presented, it was the music that helped celebrate the freedom that was the theme of the day.
The day began with local gospel group, the Echoes of Heritage, performing and another early musical highlight was young Kamilah Brooks’ powerful and emotional singing of our National Anthem.
And the featured performance of the day was brought to the Cookhouse Museum by native son Tshombe Selby.
Born and raised in Manteo, Selby has gone on to a career in classical music and is a regular part of the opera chorus at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. During his introduction, he announced that he had just signed a contract for four performances this upcoming year.
Although he began singing at Haven Creek Baptist Church in Manteo, it was at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) where Selby’s professional performance skills were honed with the university’s choir.
For this year’s Juneteenth celebration, Selby gathered some of his choir mates from ECSU for an a cappella performance. Although it has been almost 20 years since they were together, as alto Alishia McClenney said, “Once we started rehearsing, it all came back.”
Although all of them have gone on to professional careers and to raise families, their voices are still powerful and distinctive and blended beautifully.
That was apparent from the first song they performed, the spiritual I Can Tell the World, to the complex blending of harmonies and voices in Non Nobis Domine (Not unto us, oh Lord), a Latin hymn of thanksgiving.
But the main performance was Selby lifting his voice in song.
Although professionally Selby is an operatic lyric tenor, he has made a study of American spirituals. The range of his voice and its power bring the songs to life in a way they are rarely heard.
For his segment of the performance, he began with Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song that is often thought of the anthem of Juneteenth. And it brought the crowd to its feet.
A rousing call for freedom, beginning with the lyrics, “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” the song ends with a with a pointed reminder of what this country represents. “May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land, Our native land.”
Selby ended his performance with Make Them Hear You, a song calling for protest against injustice. The song, which consistently calls for peaceful protest, opens with the words: “Go out and tell our story, let it echo far and wide.”