Juneteenth, a celebration that is usually memorialized by only a small number of informed Americans, was on Friday celebrated across the country as millions assembled and it was made a federal holiday. Even so, countless citizens are still not exactly sure what all the cheering and speechifying is all about.
Those who chose to attend Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray’s block party Friday at St. Nicholas Park on the James Baldwin Lawn were entertained and educated about the significance of the moment. After Senator Chuck Schumer delivered a few opening remarks, reminding everyone that elements of “slavery [are] still with us…and we will fight it every day,” he turned the festivities over to the Secret Society of Drums and Dance and the Brooklyn School of the Arts for their version of the Black National Anthem.
“Our Harlem,” McCray shouted when she stood at the podium. “Our Harlem…you can shout louder than that,” she insisted. “This day is all about remembering what our ancestors went through. Today is a day to celebrate the strength of our ancestors. Many people struggled and worked together to make this day possible.”
It was a moving invocation, and she spared the crowd a long speech that would have explained the importance of Juneteenth and that it came to be because the enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas were not aware they had been freed. Not until Gen. Gordon Granger arrived there two and half years later were they told about their emancipation. Several communities in the nation have taken time to honor this occasion of jubilation or independence, now it’s sure to receive national recognition.
The generous applause given McCray was not sustained for the mayor, but he gamely ignored the poor reception, which is possibly another indication of his diminishing unpopularity. “This is a perfect place for our celebration here at James Baldwin Place,” he began, “and just a wistful memory is not enough…but it’s time for action.” Some of that action was divulged a day before the celebration when he announced what he called his Juneteenth Economic Justice Plan. At the park he touched on a bit of the proposal, noting that it will include universal college savings for kindergarten students, a clear reference to the Pre-K initiative that has been the hallmark of his legacy.
One of the concerns expressed by several attendees at the park if the holiday’s day off from work would be a paid one. Mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia who worked in his administration as head of the sanitation department and resigned from the post, said the mayor had failed to follow through on this plan.
Among the other speakers at the event was Iesha Sekou of the Street Corner Resources, and her comments put the moment and the history in proper context, noting it was “not the beginning” as an early speaker had suggested but an ongoing struggle for total liberation. She advised the audience that “When you leave here go and do something different…don’t be an apathetic bystander.” She admonished residents to be proactive in their neighborhood and stand up against the negative forces and the violence.