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Juneteenth event draws festive crowd
Rappahannock Regional Juneteenth, at Stafford's Aquia Landing Park, celebrates liberty for millions of Americans.

 Maria Niles (left), Jacqueline Craft Perry-Haig, Gloria Niles, Joshua Niles-Dancy, Angela Niles, Noah Monroe Aldridge and Stephanie Craft Perry join Mary Ellen Butler (center) near the marker to their ancestors, William and Ellen Craft.
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Date published: 6/27/2011


Freedom was in the air this weekend at Aquia Landing.

It rang out for hours in song, prayer, dance and speeches at the sunny Stafford County park on the Potomac River as people celebrated Juneteenth.

Few venues could be more appropriate than the 19th-century port where thousands of fleeing slaves tasted liberty and set off for new lives to the north, county tourism manager M.C. Moncure said.

Commemorating their passage through Stafford--and the longer story of escape and emancipation--energized the Rappahannock Regional Juneteenth at the old steamboat wharf where Aquia Creek flows into the Potomac.

The star attractions were eight members of one family, all descendants of William and Ellen Craft, an enslaved Georgia couple who escaped via train and steamboat through the landing in 1848.

"We can't imagine the bravery and courage it took for them to go through their escape," family member Maria Niles of Redwood City, Calif., told the crowd. "So to be in this space, knowing they passed through here, is just an amazing emotional journey for all of us."

Her aunt, Mary Ellen Butler of Oakland, Calif., recalled how she grew up hearing about her ancestors' daring lives from her mother, Virginia Craft Rose, now 97, and her mother's sister, Ellen Craft Dammond.

"We are very fortunate that we know those stories," said Butler, a retired journalist who worked for The Washington Star and Oakland Tribune. "They've always been fascinating to us, and wonderful to share."

On Dec. 18, 1848, the Crafts fled their owners in the Deep South. To elude detection, the fair-skinned Ellen disguised herself in coat, top hat, green spectacles and an arm sling as a deaf, ill white man. William posed as "his" slave.

They traveled in plain sight. Seven days' travel by rail and boat landed them on Christmas in Philadelphia, where they were welcomed by abolitionists. At Aquia, they transferred from train to boat to continue north.

The Crafts continued on to Boston and England, where they lived for years. After the Civil War ended, they returned to the United States, settling near Savannah, Ga., and establishing schools for African-American youth.

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Juneteenth, observed annually in many communities and 36 states, commemorates June 19, 1865--the day that slaves in Texas learned of their freedom, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The news came from Union troops who landed in Galveston. The date of local observances varies widely.