MONTCLAIR, NJ - Hundreds of people gathered outside of Montclair Kimberley Academy on Friday to celebrate Juneteenth. This student-led demonstration was led by students from Montclair High School, MKA, Newark Academy and other Essex County High Schools
Juneteenth is a celebration that signifies the official end of slavery in the United States when black enslaved people in Texas were told they were free on June 19, 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas was one of the last locations to learn of President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation.
This year marks the first year that students in Montclair and surrounding communities had come together to organize and celebrate this event.
Montclair High School senior and basketball standout, Janyia Mcgainey tearfully recounted an interaction with a teacher criticizing her hair in class. "This is a little testimony," she opened. Mcgainey spoke of changing her hairstyle a number of times last year and having her teacher comment on and touch her hair in class.
"After a while, the comments became a little more racist each time."
"A few seconds later, she walks ups to me with her hand out and starts to play in my braids. She starts to ask a lot of questions. What kind of weave is that? Can I get a weave? Can you do my weave?"
"Since I was used to this ignorant behavior, I smiled and laughed. If I got upset, I would be labeled as a dramatic, angry, black girl," Mcgainey recalled.
She went home that night to think of how to explain to the teacher that she was uncomfortable with the exchange. The next day, Mcgainey decided to privately explain to the teacher that her comments and behavior were "racial microaggressions" and made her feel uncomfortable.
"She didn't understand the historical significance my braids hold," she added.
According to Mcgainey, during her tearful speech, she began to cry when the teacher became agitated and argumentative.
"How could she be so ignorant to what's going on in the world? Without seeing my color, she was failing to see my struggle, my oppression, my history, my culture, and my beauty. She was failing to see me for me."
The teacher yelled at her in front of the class and pointed out another black student in the class, to make an example of, Mcgainey recalled. She added that when she told the teacher's supervisor, the supervisor made excuses for the teacher's behavior, informing her that the teacher was nearing retirement.
The year continued with the teacher not speaking to Mcgainey again for the next two months. When they both began to speak again, she added that they both pretended that the exchange never happened.
She concluded, "As a black woman I have learned that in the society you have to pick and choose your battles. This battle was not one that I had the energy or mental strength to fight."
The program consisted of multiple student speakers who also gave speeches and read poems.
Another speaker was Kelsey Freeman, Student Body Vice President at MKA. "I speak to you all today to shed some light on some of the darkest days in American history. As Angela Davis said this movement holds possibilities for change we have never experienced."
Freeman added, "But this is not the first time that our country has experienced racism and oppression, and it will not be the last. It will not be the last especially because there are monsters in power."
"For many of us standing here today, it is an every day occurrence to fight for black lives. For many of us here today, it is normal to be afraid for your life when you are pulled over by an officer. For many of us here today, it has become typical that, politicians that we trust, are failing to realize that their own black citizens could one day become the next hashtag," she continued.
The students had adult supporters in attendance, including Zelliie Imani of Black Lives Matter Paterson, who addressed the crowd. As he shared stories of his participation in demonstrations in Ferguson, MO and other places, he spoke of the dangers of going to participate in the demonstrations, but said, "I knew that my desire for freedom, was stronger than my fear of death."
He continued by saying that He was in recent discussion with executives from Twitter and stated that they informed him that, "...there's 240 tweets per second about the Black Lives Matter movement." He also said that they informed him, "20% of the conversation taking place on Twitter is about the Black Lives Matter movement."
"This generation is so powerful," Imani added.
In speaking with some students in attendance, they expressed that since they had not learned about Juneteenth in school, that it was important for the celebration to become an annual event.
Also in attendance, were leaders from Black Lives Matter Paterson, Councilor Renee Baskerville, Councilor Robert Russo, MEA President Petal Robinson, and past MEA President Gayle Shepherd.
On June 8, Montclair High School students hosted a rally that had more than 4000 people. During the rally, students recalled racist encounters they had with staff and students at Montclair High School.
As she and other speakers addressed the crowd, they were cheered them on. The speeches concluded with a march through town as marchers chanted for justice and Black Lives Matter. While at Rand Park, another brief program ensued. The peaceful demonstration, which had started at 2pm, concluded nearly two hours later.