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ON THE SCENE: Juneteenth serendipity

John Brown Farm State Historic Site celebrates new federal holiday

Former Sierra Club President Aaron Mair, left, poses with state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Erik Kulleseid Friday, June 18 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, where they celebrated the new federal holiday. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

On Friday, June 18, the day after President Joe Biden signed legislation authorizing the celebration of Juneteenth (June 19) as a national holiday, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and John Brown Lives! celebrated the 125th anniversary of New York state’s 1896 acquisition of John Brown’s farm, turning it into a state park.

Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson, and John Brown Lives! Chair Jeff Jones led the welcoming ceremonies and launch of a weekend-long series of activities.

As Brown was dedicated to the emancipation and full and equal citizenship of Blacks and Juneteenth recognizes abolishing slavery in the United States, there’s a serendipity to these two events taking place a day apart. That it took two months after the war’s end for the message to be heard in Texas is, in a way, not surprising. Recent scholarship has revealed that Stephen Austin, Jim Bowie, Davey Crockett, Sam Houston, and others wrestled the now state away from Mexico 30 years earlier, not to expand freedom for the residents, but to bring slavery into the district, a practice illegal under Mexican Law. (“Forget the Alamo,” by Bryan Burrough and co-writes Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford).

On June 19, 1865, federal troops under the command of U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and implement the freeing of all Blacks still living in slavery. Although Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered two months earlier, and Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier, Texans kept practicing slavery as they had been mainly untouched by the war. Further, even after Granger’s announcement that freed over 250,000 enslaved in Texas, many resisted freeing their slaves until after the fall harvest.

The following year, freed Blacks in Texas celebrated their freedom on June 19, a day first described as Jubilee Day. In the future, celebrations were held slowly, spreading throughout the country featuring barbecues, dancing, music and prayer services. Finally, in 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday.

Benita Law-Diao of the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities at left and Martha Swan, founder of John Brown Lives! (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Another level of serendipity is that the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was signed on Dec. 6, 1865, six years and a day after Brown’s burial in Lake Placid. Noting these links, Nicky Hylton-Patterson told those present that the fight for freedom and justice is far from over, as evidenced by efforts in many states to restrict voting rights, restrictions designed to make it harder for people of color, the poor and others to vote.

“People like John Brown and others died so we could have the right to vote,” said Hylton-Patterson. “So, we cannot give up. They died, so we don’t get the chance to say we’re tired, that we have racial fatigue, that we haven’t accomplished something today. Wash yourself off and get back up. John Brown died so that we don’t get to stop. We can slow down, but we don’t get to stop.”

Former Sierra Club president Aaron Mair noted that John Brown’s farm was part of a settlement established by abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Called Timbuctoo, Smith gave free Blacks land grants to gain the right to vote by owning sufficient value.

“A lot of people get caught up in this pristine wilderness, which was the model by which we have our national parks and wilderness protection,” said Mair. “But there is so much of American history that’s intersectional with John Brown’s farm that was part of a settlement that goes right to the core of democracy and equity. Here you had people of color who had to own land and have an income to vote. This place was part of the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad. This place is as important as the Statue of Liberty. This hallowed ground. In and around this section of North Elba was very critical to the notion of suffrage, human rights, and, more important, civil rights.”

Kulleseid praised John Brown Lives!, describing it as the farm’s friend’s group that’s tied to the site, the community and the much bigger picture of civil rights and John Brown’s legacy of bringing about the end of slavery. He said John Brown Lives! has helped brand the farm as a place where history and human rights meet.

Heather Mabee and Clifford Oliver Mealy (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“They’re an excellent friend’s group. They do excellent work and are a model for others around the state,” said Kulleseid. “We don’t have many sites like the farm that particularly interpret emancipation and human rights. So for New York to have part of that history is hugely special for us, as is having the 125th anniversary of this site coincide with Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. What timing. It’s incredible.”

A candle on that cake was the hundreds of people that showed up starting on Friday, peaking on Saturday, and still going strong on Sunday, clearly the most significant and steadiest turnout seen in years. Activities included African Drumming by Dian Oury Bah and the Badenyah Drum & Dance, the EMERGE 125 Dances, Underground Railroad Storytelling by Bobby Christopher, a tour of the Timbuctoo exhibit, and the unveiling of the Memorial Field for Black Lives created by Ren Davidson.

As Fats Waller would say, “The Joint’s Jumping!”

Many came not for the activities but rather because of a growing concern about voting rights, civil rights and justice, issues heightened over the past year by the Movement for Black Lives, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and other unsettling events. It was as if, all of a sudden, John Brown had become relevant again.

“Today, Juneteenth, is immensely important, especially here,” said Clifford Oliver Mealy. “Of all the figures in human rights, John Brown is my biggest hero. This day, this event, this place is so appropriate for me. I’m delirious.”

Nicky Hylton-Patterson, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, poses with author Russell Banks Friday, June 18 during the Juneteenth celebration at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Benita Law-Diao of the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities hopes that the Juneteenth national holiday and activities such as those at the farm will help bring people together. Heather Mabee, chair of the Saratoga-Capital District State Parks Commission, said that the historical significance of John Brown’s farm can’t be underestimated, that it’s been a part of the whole spectrum of what’s happened with our history.

“Standing on John Brown’s farm during the first national Juneteenth is a John Brown moment,” said Hylton-Patterson.