In a Winston-Salem church Sunday, poet Maya Angelou started a citywide festival celebrating the release of the last slaves on June 19, 1865.

Angelou, shifting from song to poetry, told stories about the vulgarity of slavery, tying it with an encounter she once had with rapper Tupac Shakur on the set of "Poetic Justice," a movie with Shakur and Janet Jackson, whose character crafted poems that were actually written by Angelou.

"Woo! You could see blue coming out of his mouth," Angelou said, referring to Shakur's use of profanity. "Usually, young men would stop using vulgarity when I was around. He didn't. He got worse."

So one day she went up and talked to Shakur.

" 'When was the last time someone told you how important you are?' " she said, recalling her conversation.

" 'Do you know that our ancestors stood on auction blocks for you? They stayed alive so that you could be alive. Do you know that we lay in slave ships … in each other's excrement and urine so that you could be alive this morning? You are so important to us,' " she said.

Angelou spoke these words as the keynote speaker at Union Baptist Church, marking the beginning of the Triad Juneteenth Celebration, part of a nationwide celebration marking the release of the last slaves, who were in Texas.

Celebrating the end of slavery is just part of the Juneteenth festival, said Cheryl Harry, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Triad Cultural Arts.

"If you don't remember where you came from, then you're doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past," Harry said.

State Rep. Larry Womble, Mayor Allen Joines and other elected officials were also in the pews for the Juneteenth kickoff. Among them was Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward.

"For me, personally, being 22 years old, I am not as connected as some of the more senior individuals in the community are with that history and that heritage, but through things like this and through the conversations and the storytelling … it's important for my generation to continue to reflect on it and continue to learn from it," he said.

The festival's main events are scheduled for Saturday at Joel Coliseum Annex from 10:45 to 4 p.m. Included are gospel choirs, blues bands, African drumming, a fashion show, dance teams and poetry. Parking and admission are free.

In addition, a lecture series is scheduled at St. Philips Complex at Old Salem, according to Triad Cultural Arts. On Tuesday at 6:30 p.m, the topic will be "The Social Implications of a Post Racial Black Church." On Thursday at noon, the topic will be "Ancient Slavery vs. Chattel Slavery: A Comparative Analysis."

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