Walter Simpkins says he’s not an actor, but sometimes the best way to teach a student and enhance the learning process is to pretend.
With that in mind, Simpkins will once again take on the look of 19th century black businessman and former slave Moses Viney to help observe next weekend’s 12th annual Schenectady Juneteenth Celebration at Vale Cemetery and Central Park.
A native of Brooklyn who works as an admissions recruiter at Schenectady County Community College, Simpkins has been portraying Viney for a few years and has been involved with the planning of Schenectady’s Juneteenth Celebration since the event began to increase in popularity in 2006.
‘Voices of Freedom’
WHAT: Part of Schenectady’s Juneteenth Celebration
WHERE: African-American Burial Ground, Vale Cemetery, Schenectady
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 346-1262, www.hamiltonhillartscenter.org/juneteenth.html
He will be joined by other re-enactors portraying historic characters, including Albany’s Donald Hyman and Cora Schroeter, a constituent representative for Congressman Paul D. Tonko. Among those being depicted are Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Solomon Northup and Sojourner Truth.
Simpkins has a degree in black history from the City College of New York and a master’s degree in African-American Studies from the University at Albany. He is divorced and has a daughter and a granddaughter in New York City. Two years ago, he helped form the local chapter of Community Fathers, a nonprofit group that helps former incarcerated people merge back into mainstream society.
Schenectady’s first Juneteenth Celebration was held in 2001 at Jerry Burrell Park. The day commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., which in Texas didn’t occur until June 19, 1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with the news. The Civil War had ended two months earlier, and the Emancipation Proclamation written by President Abraham Lincoln had been issued more than two years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863.
Schenectady’s Juneteenth Celebration is presented by the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. The Friday night program at Vale, “Voices of Freedom,” will begin at 6.
Q: Who is Moses Viney and how did you come to hear about him?
A: I went to a conference on the Underground Railroad, and I heard a Schenectady history teacher named Neil Yetwin talk about him and how he was a runaway slave who had been hired by Union College president Eliphalet Nott and had become his right-hand man. When Nott died, he left Viney $1,000 and a carriage, so he went out and bought three more carriages and started his own livery service. Neil said how he had been buried in Vale Cemetery but there had been no marker for him. With the help of Union College and Price Chopper, we took care of that, and with Neil’s help I’ve been researching Moses Viney ever since. He was quite an interesting character.
Q: When did you start impersonating him?
A: I re-enact, but I’m not an actor. I’m more of a scholar. But sometimes I appreciate that it’s a very effective way to teach history. I had a picture of him, so I took it down to The Costumer and they hooked me up with the right clothes. When I started working with the kids cleaning up Vale Cemetery, I realized the greatest visual lesson I could give them was portraying Moses Viney. And, in our culture we have an oral tradition. We tell our stories, so it’s also a matter of carrying on that tradition.
Q: Why is the Juneteenth Celebration so important?
A: It celebrates a very important part of our history. The slaves in Texas never knew about their freedom until after the Civil War was over and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They had been free all this time and they didn’t know it. It shows you how a lack of information or what being uninformed can do to you. Juneteenth is a beautiful way to teach that. They’ve been celebrating it in Texas for a long time, and it used to be the time when former slaves would try to locate their families. It’s been a state holiday in Texas for quite a while, but only recently has the significance started to catch on around here.
Q: Have you always been interested in history?
A: Always. The most interesting aspect for me has been looking at people, seeing them in a certain situation, and then seeing how they struggle and move forward and get past their adversities. Cultures have to do the same thing. That’s why it was so important to clean up Vale Cemetery, and that’s why we start off the Juneteenth Celebration at Vale on Friday night and then move to Central Park. Where they buried all the black people they used to call the “old colored plot.” Now we call it the “African-American Burial Ground.” It was so important for us to rename that ground and restore the area.
Q: Why did you move to Schenectady?
A: I came up here to visit a friend and I’ve been here ever since. I just liked the pace, and I found out there were opportunities up here. I had a few jobs, but then I got tired of working for people who knew less than I did, so I went back to school and got another piece of paper. I went to UAlbany and got my master’s.
Q: How did Community Fathers Inc., get started?
A: I’ve learned that a major problem in our community is that the kids are fatherless. So we wanted to do something to help get the fathers back with their children, so we started a support group. Then we realized we should get incorporated so we started a nonprofit group, and now we sponsor a re-entry program with the Schenectady County Jail. It’s to help fathers who come out of jail get back connected with their children. We try to ensure that they don’t go back to the problems that put them in jail. We try to have a positive impact on their life.