This year’s Juneteenth observance, a celebration of the day Texas finally liberated its slaves in 1865 more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, came just days after a tragic reminder of the racial problems that still plague the country 150 years later.
As the community celebrated Saturday at Central Park in Schenectady, talk often turned to the racially motivated killing of nine people at a historic African-American church in South Carolina Wednesday night.
“This year has been just terrible, it really has,” said Patricia Bronson, of Schenectady, who was at the event with her three young foster grandchildren. “It’s sad that people still live like that.”
While some were left feeling hopeless by the shooting, shaking their heads and wondering when, if ever, they’ll see true equality, Bronson said she had hope — and she saw it in the way the families of the victims responded.
“Every family member said they forgive the shooter and they’re not going to hold on to it,” she said. “I just wish we could all come together.”
Juneteenth has been celebrated in Schenectady for the past 15 years, led by the Hamilton Hill Arts Center in cooperation with various community organizations and churches. The celebration began Friday evening, with an observance and anti-violence service at Vale Cemetery, and continued through Saturday at Central Park with performances, vendors, activities and the crowning of the Juneteenth king and queen, a new addition this year.
“The end of slavery is an important thing to celebrate not just for African-Americans, but for all people who value freedom,” said Miki Conn, co-chairwoman of the Juneteenth Committee.
“For all people who believe that slavery was a bad thing, the end of it is something that ought to be both observed and celebrated.”
Two Schenectady High School students, Troy Dickson and Brieanna Girdhari, both 16, were crowned the first ever Juneteenth king and queen Saturday afternoon, based on nominations from teachers and various qualities such as academic performance, character and extracurricular activities.
Juneteenth Committee Co-chairwoman Betty Harper said adding a king and queen was a way to get young people more actively involved with the community.
“We’re looking for someone who is interested in working on their community, and also in working on themselves,” she said.
Freedom for Texas slaves finally happened when a Union major general rode into Galveston on June 19, 1865 and read, in part, “The people of Texas are informed that . . . all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.”
That pronouncement freed 250,000 slaves in the state, and the day became a celebration that eventually spread across the country.
When Conn helped found it in Schenectady 15 years ago, it was one of the first in the region.
“It was very small, nobody knew what it was,” she said. “Maybe four or five years after we started it, Albany began celebrating it. Now individual churches celebrate it; it’s celebrated throughout New York state.”
When Hamilton Hill Arts Center Executive Director Omoye Cooper took the stage Saturday in the opening ceremony of the event, she was one of the few opening speakers who directly addressed the South Carolina shooting.
“While slavery was on paper abolished 150 years ago, it’s a fight that we are still fighting,” she said. “We have a big challenge ahead of us. We have racial intolerance. We have an attack on the African-American community. You can’t hide from that anymore.”