The Rev. Harvard Stephens held high a wooden cup filled with water, turning first to the north, then to the south, east and west as he called out "Ago," a word with African ritualistic roots used to summon the attention of all creation.
"I am bringing all of creation into this and sending forth a blessing as we honor our ancestors . . . our memories," said Stephens, who poured water from the cup as he called out the names of renowned African Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.
Stephens's libation ceremony was part of the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at the Community Services Center in Landover, an event that commemorates the day when the last slaves in the distant reaches of the Confederacy finally learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865.
Although most people credit President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation with the freeing of slaves, that is a misnomer, said Shawnna Hill, organizer of the Juneteenth event.
It took 2 1/2 years for the news to filter by word of mouth to many enslaved in the South. About two months after the Civil War's end, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger sailed into Galveston Bay in Texas and told the last of the slaves that they were freed.
"That is our true Independence Day when all slaves were really free," Hill said. This is not a well-known fact, agreed many who attended Saturday's celebration.
"As a child and even as a university student, I don't remember every hearing about it," said Carol Sims, Hill's mother, who traveled from Dayton, Ohio, to mark the date with her daughter. "It's a part of the history I just was not aware of until the last four or five years."
Sims, 51, wanted particularly to honor her grandfather, a slave who escaped to Ohio before 1865 to be freed.
"I remember the scars and trenches in his back," she said, noting that her grandfather said he had been tortured by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. "They hung him from a tree and nearly killed him.
"One night he started running and kept running. That's how our family got to Ohio."
Sims's grandfather's name was called out during the prayers and rituals, as were other family names.
"We are connecting our past and our future," said Stephens, a Lutheran pastor from Truth Evangelical Church in Kettering. "If you think you are starting off with no past, you won't have a sufficient wellspring to draw from."
Eugene Redd, of Capitol Heights, who has been collecting slavery artifacts for 50 years, brought a collection of shackles and branding irons with him to show the crowd at one of several display booths. He admonished the audience to "never forget."
"Good God almighty," said one man, who didn't want to look and walked away. "Lord, have mercy."
Redd told clusters of people that slaves were branded several times, on their arms, thighs and heads, and that women who refused to be raped were shackled to an iron ball and set out in the hot sun.
"This lets me see what we take for granted," said Heather Owens, 23, of Camp Springs. "It pushes me personally to want to take advantage of every opportunity I have in life."
Although the Landover event is the first of its kind in Prince George's County, with about 100 people participating in the songs, games and prayers, many communities have long marked the day.
Freed slaves and their descendants made annual pilgrimages back to Galveston in the early years after the end of the Civil War, while other freed slaves gathered in rural areas, often around rivers and creeks, to celebrate the day with picnics and games, organizers said.
As the United States became increasingly urban and industrialized in the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations waned because employers wouldn't allow time off, according to organizers.
But Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s revived the holiday, many of them wearing "Juneteenth" buttons at protests and marches to raise awareness.
The date was used as a "Day of Absence" in 1992, when blacks were asked to boycott schools and workplaces to protest the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating case.
Area celebrations are becoming more common. "This is the first time out," Stephens said of Saturday's event, "but the date is important to everyone. . . . I think you will see this grow."
CAPTION: Howard Speight prepares a turkey for the Juneteenth celebration in Landover.
CAPTION: Lifting Their Spirits: Stephanee Payton, left, Angie Slade, center, Marie Inge, behind woman on right, and Lavon Owens sing at the first annual Juneteenth celebration in Landover.