East End Voters Coalition co-chair Robert 'Bubbie' Brown speaking to Pulaski Street Elementary School fifth grade students about Juneteenth Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. President Joe Biden yesterday signed a bill passed by Congress this week establishing the holiday. It is the first new federal holiday established in nearly 40 years, when the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was made a federal holiday in 1983.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day and Jubilee Day — Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon arrived in Galveston, Texas — with 2,000 troops — to read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln nearly three years earlier, on Sept. 22, 1862, and order freed the slaves still being held there.

Slavery was officially ended Jan. 1, 1863, the effective date of the proclamation. Word of the emancipation was slow to make its way to slaves across the country, and their bondage continued in spite of their legal emancipation, especially in the states of the Confederacy.

“Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, and a promise of a brighter morning to come,” Biden said at a bill-signing ceremony yesterday at the White House.

Biden stressed the importance of remembering even painful chapters in American history. “Great nations don’t walk away,” he said. “We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Pulaski Street Elementary School Principal Patrick Burke speaks to Juneteenth essay contest winners Wednesday, Landon Reiter and Braeden Messina, remote students Aceon Williams and Camila Garcia and teachers Candice Perry, Jillian McMahon and Jaime MacDonald, with Thelma White and Robert Brown of East End Voters Coalition. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Remembering is exactly the goal of the East End Voters Coalition in sponsoring the annual Juneteenth essay contest at Pulaski Street Elementary School, said Robert Brown of Riverhead, co-chairman of the coalition. It’s important to teach children of all races about what happened in America.

“A multiple of sins have been put upon minorities in this country. I’m not talking just about black people, either. I’m talking about the way the Chinese were treated when they were building the railroad and what they did to the they did to the Japanese with the internment camps when World War Two started,” he said.

Brown spoke in an interview Wednesday following the voters coalition’s presentation of awards to the winners of the annual Juneteenth essay contest it sponsors at Pulaski Street Elementary School.

Fifth-graders were tasked with writing a diary entry upon hearing of the emancipation from the perspective of children born into slavery.

East End Voters Coalition board member Thelma White speaks to two of the Juneteenth essay contest winners, Landon Reiter, left, and Braeden Messina Wednesday at Pulaski Street Elementary School, as coalition co-chair Robert Brown looks on. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In the winning essays, children wrote of being both shocked and elated by the news and pondered what it would mean to be free.

Landon Reiter wrote his family planned to move north, where they said they would have a better life. But, he wrote, “I’m scared, though.” He wondered what it would be like being away from his home town for the first time.

Camila Garcia wrote of feeling overwhelmed by the news and worried about what might come next. “I thought the day where we would have our freedom would be the day that pigs could learn to fly,” she wrote.

Aceon Williams created a character named Willy Earl and wrote in what Brown called an “ebonic language” to describe his reaction to the news of his freedom.

“Um iz hapy an frad ot do sam tim,” wrote “Willy Earl.”

Braeden Messina speculated on what it will be like to grow up free, “get a job and own a house and have a life.”

Brown commended the fifth-grade teachers for the job they’re doing to teach the youth about “the depth of slavery” is commendable.

“To me, it’s personal,” Brown told the children. “I think back on how we as a people got here and what we had to do to survive here. And I think that everybody who got to this country that way should have their chests poked out in pride to see how you’ve gotten to where you are from where you were before,” he said.

“I’m a very proud African American,” Brown said.

“I don’t care where you came from, you should carry whatever heritage you have with pride,” Brown told the students.

Pride in one’s heritage is another reason the East End Voters Coalition has been sponsoring the Juneteenth essay contest and why it hosts a Juneteenth celebration every year in Ludlam Park in Flanders. The event was initially held in Stotzky Park going back to the early 2000s. At the time, it was one of the few Juneteenth celebrations in the region.

“Riverhead set the table for New York State to get on board,” Brown said.

East End Voters Coalition board member Thelma White helped Brown distribute certificates of recognition and cards to the winning essayists Wednesday. The contest was judged by coalition members Brown, White, James “Butch” Langhorn, Linda Bullock and Aramentis Brown.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.