Juneteenth: Freedom and history celebrated in Greenport


That word was on everyone’s mind and in their speeches on a warm, sunny Saturday morning on Third Street in Greenport.

The occasion was the Clinton Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion church’s celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the day the very last group of enslaved men, women and children in Texas, on June 19, 1865, were told they were no longer owned by their masters.

Since 2021, June 19 has been a national holiday, and those who attended the church’s celebration on Saturday came to honor the holiday, but also to better understand its meaning in their lives.

“This is a celebration of liberation, of freedom,” said Rev. Natalie Wimberly, the church’s pastor, as she stood on the top step of the church and welcomed guests to the celebration.

She spoke of the “glorious day” when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, heard a Union Army officer read a proclamation that slavery in America – which began in Virginia in 1619 – was finally over, and that they were the last group of enslaved persons to hear this extraordinary news. She said the people there on that day in 1865 were “models of strength.”

By 10 a.m. Saturday, visitors had begun to gather in front of the church, which sits at the top of Third Street. Dancers practiced their routines, a choir gathered around an electric piano, two men played African drums, and Rodney Shelby fired up a barbeque behind the church.

For everyone in attendance, and those who spoke, history and freedom were the order of the day.  The Emancipation Proclamation had become law on January 1, 1863, as the Civil War was entering its third year. It took that long – two years and six months – for word to reach the enslaved people of Texas they were a free.

Events on that day, Rev. Wimberly said, have largely been ignored in the teaching of American history. She said the lessons today are that everyone has dignity, no one is counted out.

When she finished speaking, the choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with dozens of attendees in front of the church enthusiastically singing along.

“It’s a beautiful day in Greenport,” Mayor Kevin Stuessi said from the podium. “It’s a long time since 1865. A lot of change has happened, more is needed.”

“We stood in this street to protest what happened to George Floyd,” Mr. Steussi said of a candlelight vigil in the village three years ago. “I am so proud to be here with you.”

Marlon C. Small, Greenport school district superintendent, quoted activist Marcus Garvey, who said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” Mr. Small spoke of places in America where books about certain aspects of American history have been banned and other burgeoning “movements to restrict our history.”

See photos below:

Photos by Jeremy Garretson

Mike Domino, the co-chair of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force, said, “We promise to always respect you. We all live in the same country.”

The celebration included dancers and poetry readings before everyone moved to enjoy Mr. Shelby’s barbeque. One poem read was Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird.” It ends this way:

The caged bird sings, with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom