NEW YORK — Some organizers of Juneteenth celebrations around the city admit they’ve been learning about the origins of the commemoration, but are eager to bring New Yorkers up to speed on the nation’s newest federal holiday.
President Joe Biden signed a bill last year designating Juneteenth a federal holiday, and its second official celebration will be marked nationwide on Monday. But many events are sticking to the actual date and will roll out Sunday.
“I didn’t know anything about it at first,” Brooklyn organizer Athenia Rodney, who presides over the Juneteenth NY Festival — now in its 13th year commemorating an event long omitted from history textbooks — told the Daily News.
“And this is the point where I always talk about how education of certain things is not being taught in school. So my best friend, she’s very ethnic in her approach to things and her family always celebrated Black holidays, and they were my initiation into learning and understanding about it.”
The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to let people know the Civil War was over and that slavery was abolished two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation.
A recent study found that 53% of middle and high school students don’t discuss Juneteenth in their schools. The survey, by homework app Brainly.com, polled 1,015 students nationwide.
James Monroe Iglehart, the Tony Award-winning star of Broadway’s “Aladdin” and “Hamilton,” confesses he also didn’t know much about Juneteenth, which Texas has recognized as a state holiday since 1990.
“I was one of those people who had heard about it when I was a kid and didn’t really get it [when] your mom was talking about it,” the 47-year-old told The News. “And it wasn’t really until my nephew, who is going to be 21 this year and a college kid, and I were talking about it and talking about being Black at this time.”
“It was like three years ago that I really understood what it meant and how I understood that it was a definite Independence Day for our people, for folks in certain regions, not knowing that they were free,” he added.
On Sunday, Iglehart will take a break from touring with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award winning “Freestyle Love Supreme” improv hip hop troupe to host the second annual “Broadway Celebrates Juneteenth” concert in Times Square.
Presented by The Broadway League’s Black to Broadway Initiative, the 90-minute event will feature performances from cast members from shows on The Great White Way including “Funny Girl,” and “Paradise Square,” alongside a special appearance by Tony Award-winning “MJ” star Myles Frost.
The festivities will also honor Broadway and TV veterans Leslie Uggams and Ben Vereen with the first Juneteenth Legacy Awards.
“I think that the way that we honor our ancestors is to pay homage to them and to look at where we’ve come from and to look at what freedom is,” Broadway League’s Gennean Scott said. “Not only that, but to celebrate where we are right now, but not to rest on our laurels because we have to continue to do this work to build a solid foundation for the future of Broadway.”
Four-time Grammy-nominated guitarist Robert Randolph is behind the second annual Juneteenth Unityfest, which will include three events for Sunday: a block party at Under the K Bridge Park featuring DJ Spinna, Josh Milan, Soul Summit Music, and Descendants of Sound at 3 p.m.; a concert at the Lena Horne Bandshell at Prospect Park, and; a late-night after party at Brooklyn Bowl.
Randolph introduced the event last year as an extension of his foundation as a way to bring together different voices to celebrate the holiday.
Like so many others, the Irvington, New Jersey, native admitted to not being as well versed in Juneteenth in the past.
“I would say we learned about it because of my family and the church, we would kind of recognize the story…but l I just really learned about it in the last couple of years, to be honest with you,” he said.
“It’s constantly evolving. We’re constantly learning about each other. We’re constantly, especially as Black people learning about our culture. And to be honest with you, since I’ve been planning the Juneteenth thing, I’ve learned more about who we are, where we come from, and how many different connections we have.”