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‘They fought for our freedom.’ Juneteenth service honors black Civil War veterans.

During the Civil War, Green Thurman was a slave in Anderson County who was owned by Confederate sympathizers.

Somehow, said his great-grandson, he got them to grant him permission to enlist for the Union.

Thurman was wounded in the arm by a mortar but managed to survive. His unit was at Appomattox when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and as the Civil War ended, Thurman was sent to Mexico before finally being discharged while in Louisiana.

His great-grandson, Gary Brown, sometimes wonders about what that long trip home to Kentucky after the war would have been like.

“Can you imagine what life was like for a black man in a Union outfit?” he asked.

Years later, his former owner “vouched for” Thurman’s identity, and he was able to receive a pension for his service.

On Saturday night, Brown, of Versailles, told Thurman’s story to attendees at the Juneteenth Jubilee at Lexington’s African Cemetery No. 2 on Seventh Street. The ceremony honors black soldiers who served in the Civil War.

The names of 112 African-American soldiers who served in the war and who are buried in the cemetery were called out Saturday night, one by one.

As each name was read, the small crowd of attendees acknowledged the veteran by responding, “here.”

In 2005, the first year when a Juneteenth ceremony was held at the historic cemetery, there were just 49 names on the list, but as local historian Yvonne Giles has uncovered more information and confirmed their service, more names have been added.

This year, three new soldiers were remembered: Armstead Smith, Willis Watts and John Dandridge.

Giles said her goal is to have 150 soldiers’ names read next year. The painstaking research necessary to identify them is something she does on her own, and “it takes time,” she said.

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TeSean Owens, left, Nino Owens and Joshua Bredwood, not seen, read the roll call of Civil War veterans buried on site Saturday evening during the Juneteenth Jubilee at African Cemetery No. 2 on Seventh St. in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

Some of the Civil War soldiers buried in the cemetery do not have headstones, but Giles said she hopes to honor them with a permanent marker some day.

“It’s just necessary that we do this, because they fought for our freedom,” she said.

Juneteenth, traditionally celebrated on June 19, is an observance marking the end of slavery. It began on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, first learned from Union soldiers that they were free.

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The names of Civil War veterans were read and a candle was lighted for each Saturday evening during the Juneteenth Jubilee at African Cemetery No. 2 on Seventh Street in Lexington. Matt Goins Matt Goins

Robert Bell, of Louisville, has been coming to the Juneteenth Jubilee in Lexington for years, but this year, the service took on a little added meaning for him.

This time, he was “99.9 percent certain” that at least one -- and possibly two -- of his great-great grandfathers are among the soldiers buried in the cemetery.

Bell is part of a small group of reenactors who portray members of the 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery Reactivated, which does educational outreach for Camp Nelson.

He said the work is important, and the group needs more “recruits” to help people understand the role blacks played in securing their own freedom during the Civil War, an effort Kentuckians were heavily involved in.

“Our role is to not let them fade away so rapidly,” Bell said of the soldiers. “Too many people think we sat on the sidelines.”

Karla Ward is a native of Logan County who has worked as a reporter at the Herald-Leader for 18 years. She covers breaking news.
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