Towns celebrate Juneteenth with art, fellowship and pride

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NEWARK, NJ — The Irvington High School marching band, the East Orange Silver Steppers and dancers from Concepts in Choreography in Orange performed at the Essex County Commissioners’ inaugural Juneteenth Jam, celebrating the holiday that was signed into law by President Joe Biden last year to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. Johanna Wright, a Board of Education member from South Orange–Maplewood, hosted the event, which was held outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Building in Newark on June 16.

“One of the things we have to do is keep in mind that the struggle is not over,” county administrator Robert D. Jackson said at the event. “Our ancestors shed their blood for us. I challenge everyone to think about the legacy of our ancestors and think about the work we still have to do.”

William Payne, who is the brother of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. and serves as Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.’s deputy chief of staff, also spoke at the event.

“We have fought in every war, from the Revolutionary War and every one that followed,” Payne said about enslaved people and their descendants in this country. “Although U.S. history has eliminated the role of so many of us, our history is United States history, and it must be taught if we teach the whole history of the country.”

Payne was a state assemblyman in 2002 when the Amistad bill — which created a commission that promoted the implementation of educational programs about the African slave trade, slavery in America, and the contributions Africans and African Americans have made to American society — was signed into law. Long an advocate of teaching African American history, Payne highlighted traffic light inventor Garrett Morgan and the Tuskegee Airmen as some of the trailblazers whom the curriculum highlights.

“We will continue to fight for our fair share of this great country we helped build,” he said. “We are proud to be American too, and we will teach our children about those accomplishments.”

The Rev. Wanda M. Lundy, from Siloam Hope First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, spoke about the 313 people buried in the church’s cemetery who were enslaved in their lifetimes; some of them were still not free when they died.

“There were still enslaved men and women in New Jersey,” Lundy said at the event. She explained that New Jersey’s abolition law, which was signed in 1804, was gradual rather than freeing those who were enslaved. Children of slaves were freed when they were 21 if they were girls and 25 if they were boys.

“Juneteenth marks the date Texas slaves discovered their freedom, but also 16 in New Jersey learned of their freedom,” Lundy said.

Commissioner Tyshammie Cooper, who represents parts of Newark, East Orange, South Orange and Orange, spearheaded the organizing of the Juneteenth Jam. It was well received, with more people wanting to speak and perform than she had time to schedule.

“We hope to grow it and do more next year,” Cooper said in an interview at the event. “We wanted it to be impactful. Our goal was to have a celebration, but we also wanted to highlight the work we still have to do. We want to bring folks together and educate them while also celebrating them. It’s not just for black Americans — it’s for all Americans fighting for freedom.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic