Jermaine Wells and Keith Ledbetter are doing what they can to make sure young people today remember to commemorate and appreciate Juneteenth.
"We have to celebrate our ancestors and their resilience, but when I was growing up in New York City I was ignorant of Juneteenth," said Wells, whose hip-hop group, Ill Funk Ensemble, will perform in Saturday's Juneteenth celebration in Schenectady's Central Park. "It's important that we as a people don't forget."
"When I was growing up I never heard about it," Ledbetter said of Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the death of slavery in Texas and other Southern states just after the conclusion of the American Civil War. "I was amazed I hadn't heard anything about it, so we're trying to get it more exposure, and I'm so pleased to be a part of something like this."
Ledbetter and Wells are two musicians whose musical tastes may differ, but when it comes to Juneteenth, they are in complete agreement. Ledbetter's gospel group will perform at 4 p.m. Saturday at Central Park, and Wells' hip-hop/jazz band will take the stage at 6 p.m.
"I was an African studies minor in college so that's where I finally got some knowledge of it," said Wells, who lives in Schenectady and works at Union College. "I don't think I would have been privy to that information if not for those classes. But this is a wonderful celebration and I would like to see it become mobilized and have black people really take ownership of it. I'd love to see it remembered on a big scale."
Schenectady is certainly doing its part. The Hamilton Hill Arts Center created Schenectady's version back in 2000, Albany is having its own celebration this weekend, its 12th, and Troy has had a Juneteenth event for six years now.
In Schenectady, things begin with a solemn ceremony Friday at 6 p.m. at Vale Cemetery. The event lasts for 90 minutes and concludes with an ice cream social, and then the celebration resumes on Saturday throughout the day in Central Park.
"This is an event that should have been going on much longer than just the last 18 years," said Betty Harper, a board member at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center and one of the organizers of Juneteenth in Schenectady. "Our heritage is so important to us, so it's very important that we are doing something like this. I've been involved for the last 12 years but I never knew anything about Juneteenth before the Hamilton Hill Arts Center started putting it on."
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S., dating back to June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 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. In many Southern states, slaves weren't even aware of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation back on Jan. 1, 1863.
While it is now an official state holiday in Texas, Juneteenth was largely forgotten in other areas of the country. There were various celebrations throughout the 19th century, but it really didn't begin to become popular again until after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Flint, Michigan began one of the biggest Juneteenth events back in the late 1980s, and in 1994 Black leaders in New Orleans began calling for a national celebration of Juneteenth.
"We have to make sure that young people today, and even adults, know about Juneteenth and how important it is," said Harper, a Schenectady resident who works for the State Assembly. "We can't forget our history."
Along with Ill Funk Ensemble and Restored Gospel Group, Saturday's performers will include the Schenectady High School Jazz Band, Prince Sprauve and the Umoja African Dancers.
WHAT: A celebration of Black history by the Hamilton Hill Arts Center
WHERE: Schenectady's Vale Cemetery and Central Park
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday at Vale, and 1-8 p.m. Saturday at Central Park
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Visit www.hamiltonhillartscenter.org