Pictured Above: Jackson’s Dance leads The Electric Slide

Leroy Heyliger (center)

When Leroy Heyliger of Mattituck was just three years old in 1937, his father brought his family from their home in St. Kitts and Nevis to New York through Ellis Island, passing the Statue of Liberty, on a path to start a new life.

His father had worked in the sugar fields on a rum plantation and was inspired like many in the West Indies to follow the path of Alexander Hamilton to come to the United States.

The Statue of Liberty, which he would visit many times with his father, was “the embodiment of all races and creeds,” he said as he watched the festivities at the first ever Juneteenth Parade and Celebration on June 15 in Greenport. “We were all coming to the United States to escape the tyranny of those days.”

This day of festivities could be embodied in one word — Freedom. Mr. Heyliger said that one word three times as he looked around from his seat of honor at the Council of Elders, Grand Marshals convened by Greenport’s Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, which organized the boisterous parade on the occasion of the church’s 100th Anniversary. A tear came to his eye as he wished his father could have seen what was going on.

“This is the beloved community that Dr. King talked about,” he said.

Eleanor Lingo, another of the Grand Marshals, didn’t hear about Juneteenth growing up in Southold — the holiday originated in Galveston, Texas in 1865, when enslaved people there learned two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that they were free. Celebrations have been growing among the nation’s Black communities for decades, but the holiday didn’t truly enter the national lexicon until after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of 2020. It was made a federal holiday the following year by President Joe Biden.

“I was grown when I first heard about Juneteenth,” said Ms. Lingo, who graduated from Southold High School in 1944. “It has a great meaning.”

“My classmates got along lovely. We didn’t know color. We were kids. We got along and loved one another,” she said, adding that she didn’t learn that everything about her childhood friendships wasn’t rosy until years later, at a high school reunion, when her friend Betty said ‘people in Southold were always after my mother for my being friends with you.'”

Council of Elders member Julia English, who has lived in Greenport since 1961, gave a blessing to the festivities at Clinton Memorial before the crowd marched down Broad Street, Main Street and Front Street before ending at Mitchell Park for an afternoon of speeches, music and dance followed by a film screening on the history of Juneteenth at the newly opened North Fork Arts Center in the Greenport Theater.

The meaning of this day “is freedom, and we should all be free,” said Ms. English. “All humans should be treated as humans. God created us as such. We need to look at why we would want to enslave someone? Does it make you feel better? Does it give you power? Ask yourself.”

Led by a pickup truck filled with drummers with djembes and shakers, the parade brought together members of the North Fork community who shared a concern for justice for all — clergy and their congregations, students from local schools, North Fork Women, elected officials, a healthy contingent from the Greenport Fire Department, the North Fork Academy of Dance, the Butterfly Effect Project, CAST and a crew of kids on bicycles riding alongside Greenport Mayor Kevin Stuessi.

It was sponsored by Clinton Memorial; the North Fork Chapter of Coming to the Table, a national organization which works to bring together the descendants of both enslaved people and enslavers; and the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force.

At Mitchell Park, Greenport High School student Faith Welch reminded the crowd that there are ample reasons for people on the North Fork to celebrate Juneteenth.

“One might wonder, why should the North Fork embrace Juneteenth?’ The answer lies in the spirit of unity and inclusivity that Juneteenth embodies,” she said. “Even though events of that day took place in Galveston, Texas, where 250,000 enslaved people learned of their freedom and celebrated with a parade and picnics, the outcome affected people across the nation, shaping the course of American history, not just African American history.”

“We can use Juneteenth as an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the region’s heritage, and to reflect on the ongoing journey toward racial equality. It’s also an opportunity to acknowledge the history of slavery on the North Fork,” she added.

Greenport Village Clerk Candace Hall challenged the crowd to take the conversation started there home with them.

“Nobody’s free until we are all free. What that looks like in practice is having uncomfortable conversations with your friends, challenging the status quo,” she told the crowd. “Things that once upon a time you could get away with saying — the more you know, the better you have to do. There are things that were said that are not appropriate anymore. Take this knowledge and have challenging conversations. if you push through, that is where the change happens.”

Pastor Milton Vann of Jefferson Temple Church of God in Christ in Cutchogue told the crowd that the thought ‘they were free. They just didn’t know it yet,’ kept coming to his mind when he thought about the history of Juneteenth.

“Neighbor, our freedom still has some growing to do,” he said. “I’m so grateful that we are free, but it still has some growing to do. You can’t stop praying and you can’t stop working and looking out for one another.”

Pastor Natalie Wimberly of Clinton Memorial, the emcee for the day’s festivities, reminded the crowd that the period after the first Juneteenth was a great period of organizing, as formerly enslaved people registered to vote and learned how to navigate the changes in the social structures surrounding them.

She brought to the stage Michael Zweig of the Poor People’s Campaign, which builds on the anti-poverty work done by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

Gabriella Booker of The Butterfly Effect Project holds her Juneteenth flag high.

“We often forget it wasn’t just slavery — it was racial slavery… it was about how do we divide people so some people will be slaves and some people won’t be,” said Mr. Zweig. “That division is what we are living with today. It’s very important for white people to understand when Juneteenth happened in Galveston, Texas, that wasn’t just the liberation for Black people. That was the liberation for white people too. White people were liberated from that slave mentality, which bound us down as white people too.”

“This year is very, very crucial,” said Larry Street, the President of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of the NAACP. “It’s the most crucial year for me in my 70 years, and what I mean by that, and I think you all know, is that the vote counts. The vote counts. There’s a movement going on folks. I’m telling you the vote counts. I ain’t ever been so critical about voting as I am today. There are people out there that are trying to destroy our history, our legacy, our culture, everything… We have to stop that. The vote counts.”

In an afternoon filled with music and speeches, one little moment turned the crowd into fast friends. Sisters Itzel and Yaretzi Portillo Diaz of Jackson’s Dance, two young girls who had danced at Clinton Memorial’s 2023 Juneteenth celebration at the church, began line dancing to a couple numbers beginning with Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

A toddler in a floppy hat joined them and then another toddler jumped onto the boardwalk, which was being used as a stage. As the second toddler’s mother followed her, Pastor Wimberly encouraged the whole crowd to get on the dance floor. About half of the people there jumped up.

“It’s not a party until everybody is doing the Electric Slide,” she said.

Pastor Natalie Wimberly (right) as the crowd got up to dance.
Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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