The Hamilton Hill Arts Center is hosting its 18th Annual Juneteenth celebration in Schenectady today and Saturday.
Americans generally think of slavery as having ended on January 1, 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln. But it took more than two years afterward for the entire country to learn slavery had ended.
Juneteenth has been sporadically celebrated in the South as a black independence day going back to June 1865. It made it to the North by the 1970s. The Hamilton Hill Arts Center brought the Juneteenth fete to the Capital Region in 2000.
Walter Simpkins, executive director of Community Fathers Inc., says festivities begin tonight at 6 with a ceremony to honor ancestors buried in Vale Cemetery. "Where we're having it at is something we've renamed 'the African-American Burial Ground.' It used to be 'the old colored plot' at Vale's Cemetery in Schenectady. And when we heard about it, well, we were a little amused at the word 'colored' still being used."
Vale Cemetery was added to the historic itinerary of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2012. Simpkins says Community Fathers played a role in restoring the plot, carefully cleaned the grounds, planted trees and set out to identify remains buried at the site. One set of remains belonged to Moses Viney, a runaway slave from Maryland who settled in Schenectady. "He began to work with Eliphalet Nott, the president of Union College. And he was Nott's right-hand man and carriage-driver. When Nott died he left Moses Viney a thousand dollars and a carriage. Moses Viney went out and bought three more carriages and started a livery service. And when the Salvation Army first came to Schenectady, Moses Viney gave them their first lot on his land, and he used to like to hear them sing spirituals on his porch at night. And where the Salvation Army stands in Schenectady today used to be Moses Viney's land."
Simpkins says the group unearthed a huge chunk of history. "People don't always realize that the African-American in Schenectady has been here from almost the beginning. And so therefore, what we try to do is every year, we try to have a ceremony during this Juneteenth period where we're recognizing freedom, and we try to have events that give people some historical perspective."
Schenectady Juneteenth co-chair Betty Harper says more activities are scheduled for Saturday afternoon in Central Park. "We will have vendors, all types of vendors. You might wanna bring children out because we have a petting zoo and we have pony rides for the kids. They will have different things going on in the pavilion, and the stage, the Agnes stage, will be full of performers, starting at 1 o'clock until 8 o'clock p.m. We've got the Schenectady High School Jazz Ensemble, a great gospel group called Restored and another jammin' group called Ill Funk Ensemble.”
Juneteenth is free and open to the public.