By Donald Gilpin
Juneteenth, Freedom Day, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War, will be celebrated throughout the Princeton area with a variety of events from Friday, June 17 to Monday, June 20.
Celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s, Juneteenth, officially June 19, became a New Jersey state holiday in 2020 and a federal holiday in 2021.
“It’s one of those extraordinary stories,” said Donnetta Johnson, executive director of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in Skillman, where an action-packed observance will take place on Saturday, June 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. “After people were emancipated it wasn’t until two years later that the word got to Galveston, Texas. A sergeant in the army saw that people were still enslaved and he couldn’t believe his eyes.”
On June 19, 1865 a Union Army general finally proclaimed freedom from slavery in Texas. “It’s been a jubilant celebration of freedom,” Johnson continued. “Really America’s first celebration of freedom, because you can’t have freedom in a place that doesn’t have freedom. This is a great American holiday. Of course, the battle wasn’t over and still isn’t over, but this is an American expression of freedom. It’s very significant to the African American community and should be significant to all Americans.”
Princeton will be raising the Juneteenth flag in a short ceremony at Monument Hall on Friday, June 17 at noon.
Then on Sunday, June 19, the Princeton Family YMCA will host a celebration of music and culture organized by the Youth Department of the First Baptist Church of Princeton from 1 to 5 p.m. Everybody is invited, and organizations are encouraged to set up tables and distribute information. There will be music by DJ Drop, dancing, poetry readings, and speeches.
The SSAAM event on Saturday will feature live music by the Jonathan Ware Quartet, food from Trenton’s The Big Easy BBQ restaurant, talks by artists, theatrical performances, children’s activities, and speeches celebrating African American resilience and freedom.
Titled “Freedom Forward,” the celebration will take place at the historic Mt. Zion AME Church on Hollow Road in Skillman and the adjacent True Farmstead, a historic African American-owned property recently purchased by SSAAM and the Sourland Conservancy.
“We have an exciting lineup,” said Johnson, noting that this will be the first time visitors have returned to the museum in person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Princeton artists Judith Brodsky and Rhinold Ponder will present “Black Artists: Elevating the Community,” a talk about five black artists who lived in the area and built community through their art. “These are extraordinary figures who may have been forgotten,” Johnson added.
Following the artists’ presentation Emmy Award-winning artist and educator Ronah Harris will guide visitors through the craft of quilt-making as an artistic and storytelling tradition in the African American community. Participants will make quilt squares representing their own culture, social justice, and the future, which will be incorporated into SSAAM’s community quilt.
Other highlights will include a performance of To Be Free, an original Juneteenth play by Ryan Kilpatrick; a talk by Rutgers undergraduate Isabella Ruiter about her recent travels in Benin; an interactive exhibit titled “Nature in the Sourlands” presented by the Sourland Conservancy; and an array of tables and booths hosted by local organizations.
“Freedom Forward” is co-sponsored by the Princeton University Art Museum. Visit ssaamuseum.org for more information. “It’s going to be a blast,” said Johnson. “It’s going to be an extraordinary event that no one should miss.”
Mercer County Community College (MCCC) will be hosting “A Tribute to N.J. Assemblyman John S. Watson” in the MCCC Gallery on Friday, June 17, from 6 to 8 p.m., during the final week of the traveling Smithsonian exhibit “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America.” Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Watson’s daughter, will be a special guest at the event in the Communication Building at the college’s West Windsor campus.
The Juneteenth program on Saturday, June 18 at the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township will feature free wagon rides with historical interpreters and a tour of the circa-1790 farmhouse, including a discussion of the history of the house and the people who lived in it before and after the 1804 passage of New Jersey’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.
Trenton will also be celebrating on June 18 with children’s activities, African-diaspora food, music, and information on better eating, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Capital City Farm on North Clinton Street and also from noon to 8 p.m. at Mill Hill Park with music by Alyson Williams, Pamela Williams, Anissa Gather’s Celia Cruz tribute, Chiara Fassi, Gracie Little, and the Carrie Jackson Trio. DJs, a literacy village, vendors, and information from nonprofits will also be featured. Visit taacf.com/june-18th-main-event for further information on both events.
Other area Juneteenth observances include the 2022 First Mercer County Area Juneteenth Black Business Expo on Saturday, June 18 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Conference Center at the RWJ Hamilton Center for Health and Wellness on Quakerbridge Road. The event will enable all interested visitors to learn about Black-owned businesses in the Mercer County area.