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Juneteenth: ‘This Is American History’

Thu, 06/20/2024 - 19:13

Lessons of Juneteenth are for everyone to learn

The Rev. Dr. Connie Jones, left, and members of the Calvary Baptist Church choir took part in yesterday’s Juneteenth festivities in Herrick Park.
Durell Godfrey

It was pure coincidence that Brenda Simmons opened the Southampton African American Museum on the weekend that Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday in 2021. Juneteenth, a portmanteau of the date on which it is celebrated, June 19, is a holiday commemorating the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, which occurred in Texas in 1865, two and a half years after the proclamation took effect.

On Saturday, the museum hosted a Juneteenth celebration. A day prior, which happened to be Flag Day, two flags were hoisted above the museum on a flagpole donated by Southampton Village, one of which, a blue-atop-red horizontal bicolor with two white stars in the middle, is the flag used to represent Juneteenth.

The central star represents Texas, Ms. Simmons said in an email, because Galveston, Tex., is where the last remaining slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. A larger, enveloping white star represents new beginnings for Black Americans. The variation of the flag now flown at the Southampton African American Museum includes the date in question, June 19, 1865, written vertically opposite the flagpole.

Following the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, education efforts have grown throughout the community. Arthurine Dunn, an English teacher at East Hampton High School, spoke about the increased initiative.

“I do work very closely with the town,” Ms. Dunn said. “Whenever there’s a program or something, we introduce the Juneteenth holiday, so the students are aware of why they have the day off now, as opposed to actually being in school on June 19.”

Ms. Dunn also mentioned that many students were not previously aware of the history, “A lot of them didn’t know about it, so it is a good thing that we are offering them the opportunity to learn what Juneteenth is all about.”

At school, East Hampton students learn about the holiday through their English and history coursework. “The students have written poems. They learn about it. They reflect on what the individuals who suffered through that time, what they experienced, what they felt like,” Ms. Dunn said, adding that several students shared poems at the Juneteenth program in East Hampton last year.

The increased focus on this education effort is complicated by fact that the holiday falls at a time when students and teachers are in the midst of preparing for Regents exams. Nonetheless, teachers work around this schedule, ensuring that students know why they have the 19th off. Ms. Dunn said that many students learn about the holiday in May.

“At the end of the day, this is something that should be taught because this is American history,” said Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor. She discussed some of the programs offered at Eastville, among them some that include poetry, which was also included in the Juneteenth curriculum at East Hampton High School, as Ms. Dunn mentioned.

Juneteenth education programs aren’t without conflict, Ms. Grier-Key said. “There may be pushback from various elements outside of the school, but this is American history. We can’t scapegoat it. We can’t get around it.”

Ms. Simmons worked on the establishment of a physical museum for Black culture in Southampton for 16 years. The site that would eventually become the museum was originally a Black barbershop and beauty parlor owned by Emanuel Seymore.

Mr. Seymore arrived in the area during the Great Migration of the 1940s and 1950s, Ms. Simmons said. A former employee at the beauty parlor herself, she spoke enthusiastically about answering the parlor’s phones when she was 13 or 14.

Her family has a history on the South Fork, with her father’s former business, the Cottage Inn in East Hampton on Springs-Fireplace Road, hosting performances by Etta James, James Brown, and Tina Turner in the 1960s. The site is now home to the town’s senior citizens center, Ms. Simmons said.

Reflecting on the history of the holiday, Ms. Simmons said, “The fact that” people living in slavery in Texas “had to wait almost three years to find out they were free is very significant to me. . . . It’s very sad to me as well. But that just shows, too, why it’s so important for us to celebrate Juneteenth.”

She hopes to offer more opportunities for education about Juneteenth, “Moving forward, it might be something we can include,” Ms. Simmons said, “Because of the museum, we have that connection, we have that collaboration” between the community and local government in Southampton.

East Hampton hosted its own Juneteenth event at Herrick Park yesterday, with the aim of bringing together the community, including people from all races, the Rev. Dr. Connie Jones said ahead of the celebration.

While more people know the history behind the holiday today, Ms. Simmons believes a greater effort can still be made, “It definitely should be more emphasized, and I think this is one of the purposes and the missions of the Southampton African American Museum: to educate and to emphasize history that’s not being told or . . . trying to be erased.”

“We don’t want that kind of history repeating itself,” Ms. Dunn said, stressing the value of teaching about Juneteenth and the contributions of her students.

Ms. Grier-Key agreed. “This is the stain that has not been talked about on a larger level. . . . Slavery has been swept under the rug.”

 

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