SCHENECTADY — The Hamilton Hill Arts Center has hosted Juneteenth celebrations for nearly two decades, but the pandemic put the event in jeopardy this year.
When COVID-19 first started affecting the Capital Region, organizers contemplated canceling the event, which is usually held in Central Park and draws quite a crowd. Yet, as virtual events became more popular and as community members started inquiring about the Juneteenth celebration, organizers decided to hold it online on Saturday, June 20.
“We never pulled anything together so fast,” said Miki Conn, a former director of the Arts Center and a longtime Juneteenth organizer. “I think people are happy about it.”
With the recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, this year community members and lawmakers are perhaps more focused on Juneteenth, which takes place on June 19 and celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. On Wednesday, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced that Juneteenth would be a holiday for the city. That same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would sign an executive order making Juneteenth a holiday for state employees this year. He added that he would propose legislation to make it a state holiday next year. Similar legislation is in the works in Virginia and there is a push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday as well.
However, for the Arts Center, Juneteenth has long been a day of celebration, and organizers usually start planning the event in January, lining up everything from vendors to performers/presenters. While COVID-19 delayed the planning process, in the last few weeks many in the community have stepped up, volunteering to run timely workshops like “Combat First Aid for Protestors” and “Freedom is my Birthright.”
Both are in response to the recent protests and demonstrations, said Conn. The first aid workshop, led by Army veteran Michael D’orio, will cover what to bring to a protest, how to handle tear gas and how to help someone who has been injured.
In “Freedom is my Birthright,” Gordon Collier, a Schenectady native and psychologist who runs Beyond Living, will focus on the toll that recent events may have had on one’s mental health.
“I plan on talking about endurance and joy and how the two can seem very separate but the two go hand in hand and how we have to look introspectively and examine our mental wellness and what we need during this time to really feel whole,” Collier said.
He’ll open up discussions about different mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety, examining what those feel like and how they might be affecting the community. Collier also plans to discuss emotional wellness tools and self-care methods, which are especially important at this time.
“It’s like every day there’s more news about someone who’s been killed or injured by the police,” Conn said. “That all gets to people emotionally so we want to address that.”
There also will be presentations about health and safety surrounding the pandemic. Dr. Charelle Carter-Brooks, a Schenectady native and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences, will dispel some of the false information on the virus in “COVID-19: Facts Versus Fiction.”
There are also other scheduled workshops on financial literacy and farming, which Conn has found that more people are interested in because of the pandemic.
As is traditionally a part of the event, there will be a re-enactment by Walter Simpkins of the local historical figure Moses Viney, who used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery and settle in Schenectady in 1840.
Conn plans to read a Juneteenth story for children and there will be workshops on head wrapping techniques, African drumming, Afro Zumba and more.
“There will be things to observe and things to participate in; all kinds of activities,” Conn said.
The celebration starts at 1 p.m. on Saturday and there’s enough on the schedule to keep the event going until 7 or 8 p.m. As was the case when the event was held at Central Park, Conn said, people can come and go as they please and they can pick and choose which workshops or activities they want to tune into via the Arts Center’s website.
While Conn knows that people are disappointed about not being able to get together in Central Park for Juneteenth, she said that most are just happy that a celebration of some sort is still happening.
“People wanted to share the information and were just relieved that it was going to happen, especially this year,” Conn said.
Creating a space for people to celebrate Juneteenth this year, at a time when so many are going through hardships and may be feeling isolated, is especially important according to Collier.
“I think we have to be creative in our connection, while the movement is happening there’s a lot of grief and there’s a lot of loss and there’s a lot of mourning,” Collier said.
Coming together as a community is an important step in healing, said Collier.
“I think black and brown people know that especially because that’s just who we are as people. We gather and we love on each other. Having an interruption in that was difficult, especially [for] those who have lost people due to COVID-19. So being creative in our connection is imperative more than ever now.”
To see the schedule and to participate visit hamiltonhillartscenter.org or visit Hamilton Hill Arts Center on Facebook.
WHEN: Starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday
Origins of Juneteenth
On June 19, 1865, federal troops rode into Galveston, Texas, to announce to enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and that they were to be freed.
The news came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves “are, and henceforth shall be free,” was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War.
When the announcement arrived, brought by Union Gen. Gordon Granger, it was a cause for celebration. The holiday, which gets its name from the combination of “June” and “nineteenth” is celebrated in most states across the country with community events and ceremonies.