A cool breeze swept across Agawam Park Friday morning, June 19. As a tone of celebration filled the air for the inaugural Juneteenth celebration in Southampton Village, keyboardist Teddie Turpin and singer Tanisha Highsmith worked through the chords for a song from more than a century ago.
James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” about staying faithful on a weary course through life, was written in 1900, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dubbed it the “Negro National Anthem” in 1919.
But when the multiracial crowd stood in unison to sing this anthem on the great lawn at Agawam Park on that sunny Friday afternoon, it was with a reverence usually reserved for the Star Spangled Banner. After 400 years of not being able to fix the enduring problems caused by our nation’s founding sin of slavery, this is now an anthem for us all.
June 19, the holiday known as “Juneteenth,” is the date in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Texas to inform the last enslaved people in the United States that they were now free, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“This is our July 4, our Independence Day,” said NAACP Eastern Long Island Branch President Larry Street, who added that he wanted to celebrate all black women for their strength and courage in keeping their families safe.
This celebration comes in the midst of a wave of demonstrations both locally and nationwide over police brutality against African Americans in the wake of the murder May 25 of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers looked on.
While protestors have made some gains nationally in holding officers accountable, passing new laws for oversight of the police and removal of racist imagery from public squares in the past three weeks, street protests have begun to lessen in intensity as many search for new ways to make lasting change.
A notable exception may come this weekend, when Juneteenth celebrations of freedom are slated to be held concurrently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a massive rally for President Donald Trump, who has a long history of racist behavior dating back to his family’s discriminatory housing practices and his insistence in the 1980s that the “Central Park 5,” five black teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Central Park, be given the death penalty. They were later found innocent. Tulsa, the site of a massacre of African Americans a century ago, is bracing for conflict this weekend.
But the celebration in Southampton was a joyous one.
Camryn Highsmith, known as CC, Tanisha Highsmith’s daughter, a Southampton High School graduate who currently in medical school, served as the Master of Ceremonies for the Southampton occasion.
Ms. Highsmith welcomed the crowd, and told of how the community had put together a celebration of African American culture as a teaching tool for attendees who might be new to the culture, complete with praise dancing by Elaine Booker of the First Baptist Church of Bridgehampton, and collard greens and fried chicken for all in attendance to celebrate the journey and the history of the formerly enslaved.
Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren read a proclamation making Juneteenth a village holiday — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had also issued an executive order making Juneteenth a state holiday earlier this week.
Shinnecock elder Dorothy Dennis, who is nearly 89, shared a story with the crowd of how, in her youth, she was not allowed to go into a hotel in segregated Washington, D.C., and her son was once arrested in Southampton because police believed, she said, that “no one from Shinnecock could afford a new bicycle.”
“I did not think I would live to see a black president,” she said. “I’m so thankful people are still fighting for freedom.”
Rev. Sarah Bigwood of Southampton’s First Presbyterian Church, who is white, was invited to give the invocation, which she described as an act of grace because it was an invite she felt she hadn’t earned.
She urged attendees to lift their voices in celebration.
“Celebrating the fullness of my humanity does not diminish yours, and celebrating the fullness of your humanity does not diminish mine,” she said.
Rev. Leslie Duroseau of the Hamptons United Methodist Church discussed the importance of honoring your ancestors, an importance that she said is rooted in African culture.
“The best way we can honor them is to love one another,” she said.
Trevon Jenkins, who with CC Highsmith is forming a non-profit called Long Island United Youth to educate local communities about human rights issues, urged attendees to come together for a peaceful protest later that afternoon, beginning at Agawam Park.
Pastor Tisha Dixon Williams of Bridgehampton’s First Baptist Church read a theological statement prepared for the occasion by more than 400 pastors from throughout the the Black Church:
“The Black Church was born as slave religion in spite of the American slavocracy and in resistance to the degradation of Black life by white arbiters of power. In opposition to the gods of white theology, namely, white power, white supremacy and white capitalist acquisition that bought and sold the Black bodies of our forebears, the Black Church proclaimed by night as an invisible institution that Black lives matter to God,” she read. “In light of this radical proclamation, it is not lost on us that the 45th presidential administration of the United States has once again undertaken to desecrate Black life by planning to hold an incendiary rally this Juneteenth weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
“We contend that God is on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18). We reject the white Christ that propels so-called Christians into complicity with white supremacy and bad faith that separates justice from righteousness,” she addd. “We further reject the prevalence of the individualist gospel of white evangelicalism that aims toward the perfection of personal piety and the prosperity gospel that asserts “manifest destiny” and capitalist acquisition as the will of God. We affirm God’s care and option for the poor, the prisoner, the infirm, the immigrant and the persecuted.”
CC Highsmith closed the celebration by asking the black youth in attendance to stand in front of the audience.
“I want you to never be discouraged to show your blacknesss, to stand up for who you are and to speak up for what you believe in,” she said. “Because you are all smart and you are all talented and you are all important and you all matter.”