Painting by Francis B. Carpenter depicting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln to his cabinet on July 22, 1862. Image: Library of Congress

In history class as children, the image associated with the freeing of Black slaves in the United States was President Abraham Lincoln, a white man, in a room with the white men of his cabinet reading what would later be referred to as the Emancipation Proclamation. 

It wasn’t until the past few years that this painting by Francis B. Carpenter — and in essence the whole of the Emancipation Proclamation — was replaced within the American cultural zeitgeist with the celebration of a day three years after the proclamation was issued, when, on June 19, 1865, the last slaves in America were actually “freed.” That date is commonly known as Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth has been recognized with legislation throughout the United States for the last 50 years, and was rightfully made an official public holiday in the United States last year and in New York State in 2020.

This past week, we pursued a story about why Riverhead wasn’t closing its facilities on Monday in observance of Juneteenth. Thankfully, we won’t need to write that story anymore, as the supervisor late yesterday announced that town offices would indeed be closed.

But while pursuing that story, we tried to find a community member who, like us, saw the injustice of the town government’s neglect in considering making Juneteenth a holiday, and cared enough to speak out against it.

We didn’t — at least not one strong enough to speak out strongly and in a timely manner. 

Juneteenth is important to a lot of people — and in our view, deserves to be amongst the pantheon of holidays that mark American history. But from what we observe, community leaders don’t seem to feel the same way, based on the tepid responses to our inquiries and the phone calls that were never returned.  

The people we reached out to know who they are, and to them we say: We are disappointed. 

We are disappointed with your lack of voice. We are disappointed with your lack of ferocity. We are disappointed with your apparent acceptance of the town neglecting a holiday celebrating the end of slavery.

One notable exception was Bubbie Brown, a founder of the East End Voter Coalition and a longtime proponent of educating children and adults alike about Juneteenth and its significance. Brown had a strong reaction to Riverhead Town’s failure to formally acknowledge the new holiday. But by the time he got back to us, town officials had already had a change of heart.

We’ve been in this town long enough to know that lack of opposition to the “powers that be” is the status quo in Riverhead. 

Community civic engagement seems to be dying. We see the same few people attend town meetings and watch as the various boards essentially ignore them, or worse. Sometimes they are downright rude and dismissive, which is shocking and inappropriate for people who call themselves “public servants.” 

Riverhead needs more — and more powerful — voices at the podium. Riverhead needs young people to stand up and breathe new life into legacy organizations with fresh ideas. Ranting on social media is generally meaningless and ineffective. You have to show up to be counted.

In addition, Riverhead needs coherent opposition to the current one-party monopoly of town government. Not because we always disagree with those in charge — we don’t — but because a healthy two-party system challenges the government to do better and fosters a stronger, healthier town for us to live in. The party currently out of power in Riverhead is virtually invisible and mute.

Most of all, we need people brave enough to stand up and speak out when the next “Juneteenth” is forgotten by town officials, whatever it may be  — because that neglect is really another way of dismissing a whole segment of the town’s population as unimportant. And that should not stand. 

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