The smell of baked goods, chicken on the grill and many other foods wafted through the air at Central Park Saturday afternoon.
At the Music Haven Stage, the rhythmic beating of drums prompted people to stop and watch Gballoi, an African dance and drumming ensemble, perform. Elsewhere, people walked around, checking out information booths set up by various community organizations and black-owned businesses.
It was all part of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center’s 21st annual Juneteenth celebration. This year’s event was extra special, as Juneteenth just became a national holiday on Thursday. The event in Schenectady was just one of many celebrations happening throughout the state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday afternoon that state landmarks would be lit in red, green and black that night to commemmorate the holiday.
Juneteenth is the celebration and remembrance of the end of slavery in the U.S. Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to announce the news of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation–more than two years after it had originally been signed on January 1, 1863.
“That’s why we come together, number one to reflect and then looking forward… there’s much to be done,” said Dolores Lark, the membership chair with the Nubian Empire Ski Club.
Lark, who has been attending the Hamilton Hill Arts Center Juneteenth celebration for years, was staffing a table to invite people to join the ski club.
The club was created by Phil Littlejohn, a professional ski instructor and member of the Jersey Ski Club. The idea was to get members of the African American community in the Capital District to learn how to ski and dispel the myth that “Black folks don’t ski,” according to a flyer being handed out.
Being a part of the Juneteenth celebration also gave Lark the opportunity to see generations of Black families talk about the history of Juneteenth and ways to continue moving forward.
Voluinteer Betty Harper admitted she had not known much about the importance of Juneteenth until she joined the Hamilton Hill Art Center. Now, she knows more and tries to make the organization’s Juneteenth event bigger and better each year.
She said the celebration originally began as a three-day event but was later scaled down to just Friday and Saturday, so people could spend Sunday celebrating Father’s Day. On Friday, there was a ceremony honoring ancestors who are buried in Vale Cemetary, followed by an ice cream social.
Latara Armstead has been at every Juneteenth event, too. However, this was the first year she attended the event as a vendor. During the pandemic, she said she became enamored at finding ways to relax.
“That was one thing I got better at,” she said.
She decided to start her own business — Black Entity — selling products like incense and candles to help others relax.
“It’s definitely inspiring,” she said looking around at the other black-owned businesses attending the event. “It’s been good. I’m happy with the turnout.”
This year’s event was the first for Kristian Fields. Fields attended the event with his mother, Margaret Vera, and father, Rasheem Fields.
Kristian, who was sporting a Black Lives Matter mask, excitingly rambled off his thanks to the lawmakers in congress, Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden for recognizing the day and marking it as a national holiday.
Fields was extremely happy to see people of all races out celebrating. While he and his parents had just arrived, they were looking forward to enjoying the food and musical acts.
One of the tables selling food was the Cornerstone Bakery Project. The project grew out of an idea from Walter Simpkins, the executive director of Community Fathers Inc., said Balinda Palombo, an owner of Sugar B’s Baking and Catering and baking teacher for the project.
She said the baking classes were teaching 10-to-17-year-olds more than just baking skills.
“It’s life skills too,” she said.
She said it was nice seeing people stop by to get some baked goods, but also be able to celebrate Juneteenth in person again and as a national holiday.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing that it’s been recognized as a holiday,” she said.
However, for many, it’s always been a holiday, said Asia Priest, the board secretary for Community Fathers Inc.
“It’s a baby step toward greater change,” she said.