SCHENECTADY — The 18th annual Juneteenth festival in Central Park Saturday offered a little something for everyone: dancing, music, food, history and civil rights achievements as well as ongoing challenges.
Shelise Quarles, a 13-year old Scotia native and a volunteer for the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, said she’s been coming to the event for the last five years. On Saturday she worked the front table at the park, handing out Juneteenth programs that highlight the history of the event and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. She said Juneteenth helps people remember the end of slavery in the United States.
“Slavery ended two years before African Americans even knew about it, and so it’s celebrating how there were still slaves and they didn’t even know they were free. That’s the true meaning of Juneteenth,” she said.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger, commanding 2,000 soldiers, marched into Galveston, Texas, and read a declaration announcing that all people who continued to be held in bondage were now free.
Juneteenth on Saturday featured tables selling food and other items, as well as distributing information from the event’s many sponsors.
One table had the theme of highlighting the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Qaadir Islam, a life coach with Universal Concepts, a non-profit that runs an 18-month education program for high school equivalency diplomas and job skills, ran the 13th Amendment table. Islam said he wants to bring attention to the fact that the 13th Amendment still allows slavery, or forced labor, for people in prison. He said he served as a Muslim chaplin in the New York state prison system and he thinks the practice is wrong.
“Maybe they should be paid minimum wage, as opposed to allowing private industry into the system to take advantage of an opportunity to use prisoners as slaves,” he said. “We want to change it. Awareness is essential and necessary. If they work for minimum wage, they could send money home to their family. They could be educated properly. They wouldn’t have to have their families send them money for commissary.”
The theme of civil rights was on display in the form of Fran Giordano’s cardboard mask of Martin Luther King’s head. Fran and her husband, Francis, and son Joe make heads of famous people, like Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Bruno Mars and Beyonce, and feature them at events like the Schenectady Kids Arts Festival and Juneteenth. Fran said the process of making the cardboard heads takes about 40 hours each. Once inside the Martin Luther King Jr. head, wearers have a hard time seeing where they are going, so they have to be led by one of the Giordanos.
“People mostly like to take pictures and selfies with them,” she said of her growing collection of heads.
One of the athletic attractions at the festival was Tiana Miller and Johnny McIntosh, certified double Dutch derobics instructors. The pair say they have been trained in how to instruct people to use double jump ropes for training and for fun.
“It’s a health fitness class through double Dutch. Our motto is anything you can do outside of the ropes, you can do inside of the ropes,” Miller said. “I think we’re the only ones in upstate New York who are certified for this. Literally we teach street jumping, which you used to see around here, but you don’t see it too much anymore. But we also teach trick jumping, and we do jumping jacks in the ropes, mountain climbers in the rope, anything you can think of.”