Harlem residents celebrate first official eve of federal Juneteenth holiday at James Baldwin Lawn

The city’s first official celebration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday brought several hundred people to Harlem’s James Baldwin Lawn at St. Nicholas Park on Friday night, as they and city leaders commemorated the occasion while vowing to continue the march toward equality in America.

Mayor Bill de Blasio hosted the celebration that saw a number of speakers including City First Lady Chirlane McCray, Street Corner Resources founder Iesha Sekou, as well as actress Naturi Naughton, who had her own holiday named after her through mayoral proclamation.

The festivities occurred a day after President Joe Biden signed legislation swiftly passed this week in Congress making Juneteenth the 11th official federal holiday. Juneteenth officially falls on June 19, the date in which, in 1865, the last slaves in Texas learned of their emancipation.

“The James Baldwin lawn is a perfect place to talk about the power of Juneteenth. Because James Baldwin his voice rang out asking us not to look away from painful truths. He identified them for us so we could do something about it, we could act on them, we did not have to accept them. And in that spirit today, we talk about change. Juneteenth is not just a wistful memory, Juneteenth is not just an excuse for a barbecue or a civic gathering. Juneteenth is a moment to recommit ourselves to change to action, to not accept the status quo that we all know is still broken,” de Blasio said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

While Juneteenth is about celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, Sekou had a slightly more contemporary message for those in attendance more in line with what her organization does in the community to reduce incidences of gun violence.

“Slavery took a toll on us and a lot of what we see is the residual effects of slavery. The residual effects of slavery. And so we have to have that notated some way,” Sekou said. “So when we think about duty, we think about how we’re going to create and recreate the community where you live. So when you leave here you go back and do something different, no standing by, as an apathetic bystander… Don’t allow the things that lead to violence to happen in your neighborhood.”

Mayor de Blasio issued a proclamation for Naughton that made June 18 a day in recognition of the New Jersey-born actor’s career not only as an R&B singer but also in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray.

Naturi Naughton (left) with Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray on June 18, 2021.Photo by Mark Hallum

“I am a living example of my ancestors’ wildest dreams. I am an example of hope, endurance, inspiration, a girl who rarely takes no for an answer,” Naughton said. “It’s a chance to feel seen, my little girl who’s almost four years old, will now recognize that her history is America’s history, and she will be seen and celebrated as a little black girl and that means so much to me, but today we’ve written a new future.”

Photo by Mark Hallum

Schumer spoke to the political atmosphere in Washington in his remarks which took aim at Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“They tried, some of those nasty Republicans, to not let the bill [making Juneteenth a national holiday] go through, but I made sure it did. It is now law and we will remember the long-lasting scar of slavery and racism and we will fight it every day,” said Schumer, who brought the legislation to the floor of the Senate earlier in the week, where it passed with unanimous consent.

Harlem residents celebrated Juneteeth as a national holiday in the center of James Baldwin Lawn on June 18, 2021.Photo by Mark Hallum

President Joe Biden issued the following statements earlier in signing the bill:

“As I said on the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, great nations don’t ignore the most painful chapters of their past. Great nations confront them.  We come to terms with them… There is still more work to do.  As we emerge from the long, dark winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, racial equity remains at the heart of our efforts to vaccinate the Nation and beat the virus.  We must recognize that Black Americans, among other people of color, have shouldered a disproportionate burden of loss — while also carrying us through disproportionately as essential workers and health care providers on the front lines of the crisis.”

Dancing to the sounds of a DJ continued for well over an hour after Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials left the podium at the center of James Baldwin Lawn with further celebration along Saint Nicholas Avenue.