Juneteenth: An American celebration

Esteemed historian and librarians learn how to teach about new federal holiday

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On Friday, June 17, the Multicultural Outreach Services and Information Committee (MOSAIC) held their annual breakfast at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in Bellport.

Each year, MOSAIC chooses a topic about diversity and invites speakers to educate and motivate attendees, often other librarians, to help their patronage learn more about their own culture or cultures of marginalized groups.

This year, the topic was the upcoming newly instituted federal holiday of Juneteenth.

Amber Gagliardi, the program director for MOSAIC, said, “We chose the topic of Juneteenth, as it became a holiday last year and a lot of libraries are honoring it with a day off, but we recognize there is much more behind the day than that. We wanted to highlight the social and historical importance of the day, so we sought out a speaker who is a pioneer of getting Juneteenth recognized.”

Last year’s topic was literacy during the pandemic, specifically tutors of different volunteer organizations who lost contact with students after switching to a digital model.

MOSAIC highlighted 10 online resources for tutors to utilize that could combat the digital learning curve that had mired their progress.

With libraries at the forefront of educating communities, MOSAIC felt that it was of paramount importance to address Juneteenth with authentic voices

“We really looked into our circles to find someone instrumental in the process and found that in Dr. Georgette Grier-Key,” said Gagliardi of the keynote speaker.

“We as librarians have to address and accommodate different level of readers: children, teens, and adults,” said Michelle Athanas, a librarian at Northport/East Northport Library, adding, “we had people come in [to the library] and ask about Juneteenth, so we put up a display for the three levels of readers with books authored [by] authentic voices.”

Asked about how to address the diversity level of a particular library’s patronage, Sally Stieglitz, an outreach coordinator for the Long Island Library Resources Council, said, “In our profession, we’re taught about windows and mirrors—Juneteenth literature can be mirrors our patrons see themselves reflected in, or for new people, they have a window into that world. It’s very grassroots.”

As the keynote speaker, Dr. Grier-Key is the principal investigator and design committee chair of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee.

In this current role as design chair, her task consists of coordination of the design team and government liaison between the nonprofit and profit sectors.

Dr. Grier- Key is a museum professional, preservationist, and historian with expertise in construction that brings a unique perspective to this project. As a founding member and lead organizer of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee, her continued work is leading to the rebuilding of the formerly enslaved Pyrrhus Concer’s homestead in the heart of Southampton’s village. She continues to work on preserving historic structures in Sag Harbor, Southampton Township and East Hampton Township. Dr. Grier-Key has been a diversity fellow with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dr. Grier-Key regularly contributes commentary to media outlets such as Newsday, Sag Harbor Express, Southampton Press, 27 East, Long Island Advance, East Hampton Star, Long Island Pulse, CBS New York and News 12; delivers lectures at CUNY Graduate Center, LIU Brooklyn, Hofstra University, and Suffolk County Community College; publishes her research in the Long Island History Journal and the Suffolk County Historical Society Register; and serves on the Black History Commission of the Town of Brookhaven, Town of Brookhaven’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee.

During her presentation, she summarized the history behind Juneteenth, which she called the “period on the Emancipation Proclamation,” as it was codified two years after the executive order to free slaves in rebelling states.

The common theme of Dr. Grier-Key’s message was that Juneteenth was not meant to be a holiday for solely, or separately, the Black community in the United States, but “part of American history.”

Extremely disappointed in the assumption that July 4, or Independence Day, is meant for only a certain segment of the population, Dr. Grier-Key reminded the audience that the first casualty of the Revolutionary War was a mixed-Black man and that both Independence Day and Juneteenth were part of the African American experience.

Dr. Grier-Key recalled the Niagara Movement and the founding principles of the NAACP and said, “We were born here; there’s nowhere we need to go. The American flag is a part of our history, too.”

With a long line of veterans in her family, Dr. Grier-Key spoke of her deep patriotism and honor of service with her father and uncles.

Explaining the Juneteenth flag, Dr. Grier-Key informed the audience that the colors of the American flag (i.e. red, white, and blue) were preserved for the Juneteenth iteration to show unity and lineage. The star was to symbolize the Lone Star state, the territory in which the general orders were sent to free the last of the slaves. The curve of the Congress between red and blue was for new horizons.

“Juneteenth is not a Black holiday,” said Dr. Grier-Key towards the end of her presentation, “It’s an American celebration.”

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