WEST ORANGE, NJ — Juneteenth celebrates the official end of slavery in the United States when black enslaved people in Texas were told they were free on June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
This year marks 155 years since that announcement, but it also marks the first year that the West Orange Township is celebrating the holiday thanks to the help of the West Orange Youth Caucus which organized the event.
Over 100 people gathered on Colgate Field on Friday evening with blankets and chairs while socially distancing and wearing masks in the company of friends and family. Attendees were treated with music from West Orange High School (WOHS) graduate DJ Ameer, and a variety of food and refreshments were offered including a food truck.
Jordan Scott-Young, a member of the West Orange Youth Caucus and a rising WOHS senior, said that she expected for people to celebrate Juneteenth while seeing people they have not seen in a while due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She added that because she did not learn about the holiday in school that it was important for West Orange residents to increase their awareness.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that this is our Independence Day,” she said. In the future she hopes that the township will celebrate it every year just like the Fourth of July.
“I think it’s cool that we’re acknowledging this,” said West Orange resident Rachel Miller while in the company of friends. “It didn’t exist before and I like that it exists now.”
Tammy Williams, Chairwoman of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, was also in attendance encouraging residents to fill out the 2020 U.S. Census said that she was excited to see members of the West Orange Youth Caucus “advocate for the things that they believe in.”
“The kids did this on their own,” said Mayor Robert Parisi. “They reached out and within a couple of days they had it together, so we’re happy to support them and to support what this day signifies.”
When asked about recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday in the township, the mayor said that he believed that it was more appropriate that the entire state recognize this day, but he will be continuing talks with the West Orange Youth Caucus if that does not happen.
“Today we celebrate the true Independence Day, because black history is American history,” West Orange Youth Caucus member Selam Woldai said addressing the crowd, before introducing Scott-Young who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem.