Published June 15. 2013 2:00PM Updated June 15. 2013 11:22PM
New London — Jane Bernoudy refused to be sad Saturday as the Kente Cultural Center celebrated its final Juneteenth Day event in Williams Street Park.
Bernoudy, director of Kente, danced across the park plaza to drums and reggae band music as she helped organize the volunteers, entertainment and service groups setting up tables for the annual celebration. It was the last major event for the African cultural organization that will close June 30 due to funding difficulties.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the arrival of Union troops to Galveston, Texas, in mid-June of 1865 to inform black slaves there that President Abraham Lincoln had declared them free some 18 months earlier. The former slaves broke out into a jubilee celebration.
“This is our last celebration,” Bernoudy said, still dancing to the drumbeat.
“We’ve been celebrating Juneteenth since the beginning in 1997. We’re going out with a bang. We’re celebrating today.”
But other longtime Kente supporters, youths and adults who participated in numerous programs sponsored by the African cultural organization, found Saturday’s celebration a bit harder to take.
Several children now enrolled in programs simply called the closing “sad,” and said they will miss it.
Adrianna Benjamin, 9, and her sister, Dakota, 11, both said they go there “a lot,” and enjoy the arts and crafts, science programs, learning about culture and Martin Luther King, and the pizza.
Rita Whitehead, community organizer for Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, paused to talk about Kente as she handed out L+M T-shirts and teen pregnancy prevention information at her booth Saturday.
Whitehead’s four children grew up participating in Kente programs and carried the lessons learned with them into adulthood. Her youngest son will graduate from New London High School on Friday. Her oldest daughter is in the Marine Corps. Whitehead credited Kente for some of their success.
As children, they attended many programs, including “chat and chew” reading discussions with local authors and a six-week etiquette training program Whitehead especially lauded. In the program, the students learned basic manners and how to set a proper table for dinner. The program culminated with an outing to the Bulkeley House restaurant in New London. The youths got to keep the set of formal dining utensils.
“They’ve been just such a wonderful member of the community for so long,” Whitehead said. “(The programs were) always either free or extremely affordable. And there was always food.”
Four generations of Bernoudy family members have participated in Kente programs. Tammy Bernoudy, granddaughter of the Kente director, said her son, 7, has been attending programs there since he was 3, including Art for Tots and reading programs. The family always comes to Juneteenth.
“It’s sad, because now we will have nothing to do,” Tammy Bernoudy said, as her son enjoyed the bounce house at Williams Street Park. “We went every Saturday.”