For the past 10 years, members of the East End Voter Coalition have held a party in Riverside’s Ludlum Park in mid-June to celebrate Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, a commemoration of the day in 1865 (June 19) that slaves in Texas were freed, and a general celebration of emancipation throughout the south.
The festivities, this year held on Saturday, June 17, include the honoring of winners of an essay writing contest for Pulaski Street School fifth graders, and this year, organizers received a record number of submissions.
“We received 211 entries this year. Last year there were 109,” said organizer Robert “Bubbie” Brown. “We usually have three winners, but this year we have six. It’s difficult grading them. We can’t say one is better than all the rest.”
Students who voluntarily contribute essays to the contest are given a prompt to put themselves in the shoes of a Texas child in 1865 who has just learned that he or she is no longer a slave.
“Juneteenth is a reminder to make yourself aware of history,” said East End Voter Coalition co-chair Larry Williams, who was one of the judges of the essay contest. “It’s also a spiritual holiday. Slaves often prayed and sang — there’s a saying in the black church that God may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time. A lot of times, people don’t want to wait, but we learn in life to be patient.”
Pulaski Street School fifth grade teacher Trevor Hewitt was in charge of collecting the essays from the school.
“This year’s essays were very emotional. The kids had a lot of connection to the difficulties that child had to deal with,” he said.
This year’s essay contest winners are Caleb Corbett, Andy Mardice, Jack McCormick, Shannon Noone, Harper Stauffer and Beatrice Stefan.
Riverhead High School math teacher Alethia Ford was the keynote speaker at the event.
“The blacks who received freedoms paved the way for us to have freedoms. We shouldn’t forget about what was done for us,” she said. “These things paved the way for me as an educator. I love mathematics.”
Ms. Ford, who now primarily teaches 11th and 12th grade, said she often finds herself helping high school students figure out what they will do after high school.
“A lot of them still don’t know what they want to do,” she said. “If they feel college is what they want to do, they should pursue it. If they’re not ready, they should look into other avenues. A lot of kids drop out and never go back, but the option is always there.”
“The main thing,” she added. “is to pursue and achieve your dreams.”
Tijuana Fulford, whose Butterfly Effect Project helps young women develop the self esteem needed to follow their dreams, brought with her a crew of girls who gave a dance performance for the crowd.
“Juneteenth is important today more than ever, but it’s not taught about in school,” she said.
“I need you guys to know who you are, where you come from, and where you can go” she told the girls. “It’s very hurtful when I see people bullying each other. You need to work from the inside out, expanding your love.”
She added that she hopes people come around to remembering the idea that it takes a community to raise a child.
“I had to start loving me first, and it was a huge struggle,” she said. “A lot of that is about faith. Look up. The only thing around you greater than you is God.”
Larry Williams, who is 61 years old, said he was 40 years old before he’d even heard of Juneteenth.
‘In other parts of the country, it’s a lot bigger,” he said. “You see signs for Juneteenth celebrations throughout the south.”
Bubbie Brown said he thinks there’s still room for the celebration here to grow.
“The biggest Juneteenth celebration is in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” he said. “They have 250,000 people.”