Joseph Brown, Linda Bullock and Robert 'Bubbie' Brown performing at the Juneteenth celebration at Riverhead Free Library Saturday afternoon. Photo: Alek Lewis

Community members gathered at the Riverhead Free Library on Saturday to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, with singing, dancing and a keynote speech on freedom by former Aquebogue Elementary School assistant principal, Vanessa Williams.

The event, organized by the East End Voter Coalition, began with a prayer and Co-Chair Robert “Bubbie” Brown leading the crowd in the singing of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, which was promoted by the NAACP as the “Negro National Anthem.”

Brown said in his opening remarks that he didn’t know about Juneteenth until the late 1990s, when he learned of the holiday from visiting students from the south who planned on celebrating it. 

Robert ‘Bubbie’ Brown speaking at the Juneteenth celebration at Riverhead Free Library Saturday. Photo: Alek Lewis

The holiday, which is also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and National Independence Day, is the celebration of June 19, 1865, the day when Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order enforcing freedom for enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state with institutional slavery after the Civil War ended. The last slaves were freed nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The celebration dates back to the following year in Galveston, Texas, and often also celebrates African American culture. 

Brown also read an original poem, entitled “It’s Time.”

“This poem is dedicated to that endangered species, the African American male, who had given his life in wars to this land in disproportionate numbers, who was incarcerated in the prisons of this land in disproportionate numbers, who was imprisoned in his mind by illegal controlled substances in this land in disproportionate numbers,” Brown said.

Brown, with his sister Linda Bullock and cousin Joseph Brown, performed three songs a cappella for the crowd: “Oh Freedom” by the Golden Gospel Singers, “I Shall Not Be Moved” by Mississippi John Hurt and “I’m Free” by Milton Brunson and The Thompson Community Singers.

First Baptist Church liturgical dancers performing at the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at Riverhead Free Library. Photo: Alek Lewis

The crowd was then treated to a liturgical dance performance by the First Baptist Church Liturgical Dance Ministry’s Tara Archer and Alexanderea Archer, and three foot-step dance performances by girls in the Butterfly Effect Project.

After the performances of the afternoon were finished, the East End Voter Coaltion’s Thelma White introduced Williams. Williams is a wife and mother of three, and left the Riverhead Central School District to become the principal of Manetuck Elementary School in West Islip.

“What does freedom mean to you?,” Williams asked. “Is it the ability to do whatever you want, without regard for others? Is it not being bound by any person or circumstance or condition? What is freedom? F-R-E-E-D-O-M. These seven letters carry a tremendous weight. It is a term that cannot be confined in one definition, or experience.”

In her speech, Williams explored three definitions of freedom. “I will tell you that enslavement does not have one face. Enslavement does not have one skin tone. Enslavement does not have one hair texture. Unfortunately, there are too many examples in our human race in which people have been enslaved,” she said.

Vanessa Williams speaking at the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at Riverhead Free Library. Photo: Alek Lewis

“There were three definitions that stood out about freedom in the dictionary,” Williams said. “One, freedom is defined as not being imprisoned or enslaved. Two, freedom is defined as the absence of subjection to foreign domination, or despotic said government — we’re going to talk about that. And three, freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”

The first definition of freedom was “not being imprisoned or enslaved. Williams recounted the history of slavery throughout civilization and then moved into explaining the day Granger rode into Galveston and read the order he delivered: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

“So you are free, but you are free to stay in that same house and you are free to work for wages,” Williams interjected. “Hmm. Kind of makes me think back to that debt bondage that happened in rural England.”

“They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” 

“So they were free. But were they ‘free’?,” Williams asked. 

The second definition of freedom Williams talked on during her speech was “the absence of subjection to foreign domination, or despotic government.” 

“Oh, you mean waging war on another country to collapse their government and take their resources such as oil for its own benefit?” Williams said. “Oh, you mean tyrannical reign? More simply put: cruel, oppressive, and inhumane rule of people. Sound familiar?”

“We don’t have to travel 9,000 years in history to find examples of foreign domination or despotic tyrannical governments today; all we need to do is turn on the television,” Williams said. “Look and listen to the devastation occurring globally, here in the United States, and in places like Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Central America. In these circumstances, freedom means basic human rights of safety, and the ability to just be.”

The last definition of freedom Williams spoke on was “the power or right to act, speak, or think, as one once without hindrance or restraint.”

“Now that’s power,” Williams said. “Just imagine you have the power, or the freedom to do whatever you want. Now, I know if I would ask my three girls, you ready for freedom? They’d be  like yes! I could do what I want, when I want. I don’t have to hear from you or daddy about what I want to do, what I want to say, what I want to do it with, I don’t have to hear it. That’s freedom. 

“However, with freedom comes great responsibility,” Williams said. “The power to move at your will without someone else pulling at the strings like a puppet: that’s freedom. The power to articulate your thoughts without suppression or fear of suppression: that’s freedom. The power to take information for yourself, to read it and learn it and form your own opinions: that’s freedom. That is the ultimate freedom.” 

“Our individual freedoms come with great responsibility for the collective good,” Williams continued. “Our actions, our words and opinions impact others. It has become more popular these days for people to say or do whatever they feel under the umbrella of ‘I have the freedom to do this.’ I’m sure you can fill in the blank of what that freedom might be. Whether it’s the freedom of expression, the freedom to bear arms, the freedom to assemble — any number of freedoms. 

“And after the words have been spoken, or the deed’s done, some individuals unfortunately think they have the right to walk away from the ramifications of their words or actions, because their individual freedoms supersede the collective good,” she said.

“Once again, our individual freedoms come with great responsibility for the collective good,” Williams said. “We need to be wise in what we say and do. We need to use our freedom to act, speak and think, to ensure equal opportunity of all people.”

“So today, I challenge all of us to ask ourselves the important question: What are we going to do with our freedom? Are we going to be active in our local school boards? And city or town councils? Are we going to vote in all elections, not just the Presidential ones? Are we going to run for office to ensure a more diverse sector of our community is represented in the formulation of laws? What are you going to do about it?,” Williams said.

“Freedom evolves with every generation. The things that bind generations or groups over time are never the same,” Williams said. “We must remember, the freedoms that we have are never an absolute. We must exercise our freedoms responsibly and fight to preserve them for the collective good. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife, and a freedom fighter in her own right said it best. ‘Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really one, you earn it, and win it in every generation.’ 

“So let’s be free. Let’s be free,” she said.

Butterfly Effect Project dancers at the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at Riverhead Free Library. Photo: Alek Lewis
Butterfly Effect Project dancers perform at the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at Riverhead Free Library. Photo: Alek Lewis

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]