Hundreds pack historic church for annual Juneteenth celebration

HARLEM — Riverside Church in Harlem held its annual Juneteenth celebration Tuesday night. Over 600 people packed the historic church for an hours long service.

Tuesday marks the 153rd anniversary of the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery, when union soldiers went to Galvaston, Texas. The war had ended and slaves were free. News of emancipation finally reached the enslaved people of that state. This came two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Every Juneteenth, we invite the entire community, black, white, gay, straight Latino, Asian, to come for what is actually the first all American freedom day,” said the Rev. James Forbes Jr.

The event included music, uplifting speeches and recognition of this year’s honorees, which included Harry Belafonte and his daughter, Gina. They were recognized for their work in the community.

“I find it an honor to be acknowledged and seen for the work not only my father has been doing for so many years in the community and globally, but the work I’ve been doing carrying that legacy forward,” said Belafonte. “We focus on juvenile justice, incarceration and immigration issues.”

Gina Belafonte accepted the honor on behalf of her legendary father, who was born in Harlem. Gina also still resides there. She spoke about Juneteenth taking on adding meaning given the news of the past week, as furor grows over current immigration policy that separates families at the border.

“Juneteenth is traditionally for African-Americans to celebrate resilience, to celebrate the legacy of slavery,” said Belafonte. “What this administration is doing in separating families and leaving children separated from their parents, in detention centers where they don’t even know where their families are is a direct link to the legacy of slavery and the legacy this country continues to carry forward.”

Also honored tonight, the students of the Parkland tragedy. Three students were present to accept the award for their work on advocating for gun control.

“Juneteenth is an integral part of black history,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts. “Being honored here is definitely symbolic of what we are trying to do here, to put our movement in history.”