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Tara Ebrahimian

Above, attendees at Juneteenth celebration, Eastwoods Park, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900. Photo courtesy of The Austin History Center

This article originally appeared on the Three Village Historical Society website and is reprinted with permission. 

By Tara Ebrahimian

Juneteenth, first established by the Black community of Texas in 1866, is now getting in New York State the recognition it has long deserved. On June 17, 2020 Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he would, by Executive Order, recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, and put it before the New York legislature to make this mandate, law. Although Juneteenth began in the South, it is widely observed throughout the country. It is annually observed in New York, including on Long Island, through independent and collaborative celebrations. Juneteenth’s historic and cultural relevance impacts the entire nation and remains hugely significant for Black heritage and United States history. 

It commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Blacks learned that they were legally free. Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived with his troops in Galveston, Texas, and made a profound announcement: the war and slavery were over. Technically the war ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, and the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, freed enslaved persons in Confederate states, but the news had not been shared in Texas. It was the last stronghold of slavery. Since 1862, when New Orleans was captured, slave owners from Mississippi, Louisiana, and other southern states had moved with their slaves to Texas. There were approximately 250,000 enslaved people residing in Texas when the declaration was made. 

Granger’s delivery of the news did not result in an immediate end of slavery.  Blacks in Galveston initially celebrated the revelation, but the mayor contradicted the law and forced them to go back to work. It was largely left to the slave owners’ discretion whether they informed individuals that they were no longer enslaved. Many did not initially share the information and instead waited for the arrival of a government agent to tell them. Blacks were frequently not informed until after the harvest. A number of newly emancipated individuals ignored the censure to stay put and left for Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. They did so at their own risk; there were numerous reports of Blacks being lynched as they tried to leave. 

In 1866 freed people in Texas, in conjunction with the Freedmen’s Bureau, organized formal celebrations for “Jubilee Day.” During the years immediately after the war, Jubilee Day was sometimes celebrated on January 1st, a reference to the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. It also functioned as a rally for political and social advancement; Jubilee Day frequently offered instruction for voter registration and participation. The day became a mainstream event in Black communities and featured festivities, activities, and food. 

Segregation in cities prohibited Blacks from going to public parks. Church grounds were often used as sites for the events. And, freed individuals pooled money to purchase land on which to hold celebrations. For example, Black community leaders, led by Reverend Jack Yates, raised $1000 in 1872 to purchase land that is now Houston’s Emancipation Park. These annual celebrations began drawing thousands of participants throughout Texas and expanding beyond the state. By the end of the century, Jubilee Day was known primarily as Juneteenth.  

During this period, many southern states enacted punitive and punishing Jim Crow legislation that undermined or undid the economic and political progress Blacks had made during and after Reconstruction. These local and state laws were designed to subjugate and stymie Black social, economic, and political development. They disenfranchised Black people through segregation and policies such as the Grandfather Clause that limited or eliminated voting rights.

Many freed people left Texas and the South in search of greater opportunities in the North. Juneteenth was a still Southern celebration and attendance outside of Texas began to wane. Younger generations, more removed from the war and seeking to distance themselves from the legacy of slavery, also started to distance themselves from participating in the unofficial holiday. As the twentieth century progressed, and people moved from agricultural to industrial employment, it was increasingly unlikely that people would be granted time off work for Juneteenth. The Great Depression, in particular, caused a migration from the country to the cities. 

The Civil Rights movement caused a resurgence in awareness about Juneteenth. Black youth joined their elders in the fight for Civil Rights. There was increased interest in and engagement with history and how the past informs the present. The Poor People’s March to Washington, D.C. served as a catalyst for renewed interest in Juneteenth. Participants returned to their home states and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in locations that had never before experienced them. 

In 1980, Texas was the first state to formally recognize Juneteenth; it declared the date a “holiday of significance…” At the end of the decade, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., were among the places that presented major events for Juneteenth. Although Congress has remembered Juneteenth in different ways over the years, it is not yet a national holiday. In New York, “Juneteenth Freedom Day” was first identified as a commemorative holiday in 2004, per a state law signed by Governor George Pataki.

Long Island hosts a growing number of events and programs dedicated to this occasion. Frequently celebrated on the third Sunday in June, modern events share certain traits with their predecessors, including picnics, cookouts, historical reenactments, street fairs, parades, etc. This year’s festivities are scaled back due to COVID-19, but certain celebrations, such as the Long Island Unity March on June 19, were still scheduled.  

Author Tara Ebrahimian is the Education Coordinator at the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket — www.tvhs.org.

Donna Smith, director of education at the TVHS, welcomes every fourth-grade class in the Three Village school district to the Setauket Elementary School’s auditorium, surrounded by murals painted by Vance Locke that portray a time line of Setauket’s history, on Founders Day in April. Photo courtesy of TVHS
Tara Ebrahimian, education coordinator for the Three Village Historical Society, in front of artist William Sidney Mount’s gravesite at the Setauket Presbyterian Church with students from Setauket Elementary School during a recent Founder’s Day event. Ebrahimian is holding up an image of one of Mount’s most famous paintings, ‘Eel Speering at Setauket,’ 1845. Photo courtesy of TVHS

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) recently announced that the Three Village Historical Society is the recipient of an Award of Excellence for Founders Day.

TVHS historian Beverly C. Tyler fields questions from the fourth graders on Founder’s Day. Photo from TVHS

The AASLH Leadership in History Awards, now in its 74th year, is the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

Founders Day, an annual event for fourth-grade classes of the Three Village school district, is an exploration of the depth and diversity of Brookhaven’s original settlement in Setauket.

The program is designed to complement the New York State curriculum and enhance students understanding of their local history. It includes a comprehensive presentation about the founding and development of the settlement, as well as guided walking tours of historically significant landmarks.

“This honor was made possible through the efforts of TVHS Historian Beverly Tyler, TVHS Education Director Donna Smith, volunteer Katherine Downs-Reuter, Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell and the entire education team,” said Steve Healy, president of the TVHS.

Presentation of the awards will be made at a special banquet during the 2019 AASLH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA on Aug. 30.

From left, Maryanne Vigneaux, Frank Turano, Holly Griesel and Orlando Maione at last year’s event. Photo by Anthony White/ Three Village Historical Society

By David Luces

There’s something about the 1920s that to this day many people are fascinated by. Life during that time seemed like one big party. The Three Village Historical Society and The Jazz Loft plan to bring some of the magic of the time period back for its third annual Prohibition Night fundraiser on June 21.

This year’s theme, titled Booze, Bootlegging and Jazz!!!, will have an emphasis on  bootlegging and speakeasies, also known as blind pigs.

“We’ve been collaborating with the historical society for the past two years [on this event] and I think we’ve hit it out of the park,” Tom Manuel of The Jazz Loft said. “For this year we thought what can we do better.”

Guests will be attending a mock funeral service and given a pass code to access a secret back room party filled with booze and jazz music. The historical society will have a Prohibition era bootlegging exhibit set up where guests can peruse old photos and other items from the time period.

“We really want to try to bring some of that history to life,” explained Manuel.

Tara Ebrahimian, education and volunteer coordinator for the historical society, spent weeks researching the Prohibition era and bootlegging as well as Long Island’s history during the 1920s. In a recent interview, she said her inspiration for the mock funeral came from reading accounts of actual funeral homes having speakeasies and parties in the back of their buildings.

“We want [the event] to be historically accurate,” she said. “We wanted to make this scene for the guests,” she added. “Like you’re stepping into this world, we want them to be fully immersed.”

Ebrahimian also researched how people spoke back in the 1920s and the lingo used during Prohibition. Re-enactors from Theatre Three in Port Jefferson will be on hand to aid in the immersive experience and will be acting as if they were from that time period.

Sandy White, office manager at the historical society, said she is excited for this year’s event. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said, adding that there will be a garden bar for guests with beer donated by Sunrise Ales and Lagers.

Steve Healy, president of the historical society, said the event is a great way to incorporate history and jazz music in a fun setting.“We want to make history interesting, and I think people have a soft spot for this era. There is something really fascinating about this time period,” he added.

Healy said that besides antique items from the period there will be a 1929 banana colored convertible parked outside the venue. “It’s going to be a fun night and it supports two great local nonprofits,” he said.

Just as booze and parties were synonymous with the 1920s, jazz music was just as important. Manuel’s band, The Hot Peppers, will be playing time period music from mid to late 1920s live music for guests at the event. “We want it to be authentic as possible,” explained Manuel, adding that the band will be playing with instruments that were used to make jazz music back then like the piano, guitar, clarinet and trombone among others. They will also be performing with some vintage instruments.

Manuel is grateful to the historical society for creating a wonderful partnership for the past couple of years. He said when The Jazz Loft first opened two years ago, the historical society was one of the first organizations to collaborate with them.“We wanted to partner with people in the community and each time we’ve collaborated greater and bigger things happen for the both of us.”

Guests are encouraged to dress in period attire and Manuel said he is blown away every year by how committed the guests are to dressing up for the event. “I’ve been really impressed … it has really taken a life of its own,” he said.

The Jazz Loft, located at 275 Christian Ave. in Stony Brook Village, will host the third annual Prohibition Night on Friday, June 21 from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 adults, $20 seniors, $15 students. To order, call 631-751-1895 or visit www.thejazzloft.org.