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Juneteenth In The North Country: Celebrating Freedom, Promoting Healing

A woman wearing a pink tank top stands in the rigging of a sailboat with a wooden mast at dusk, against a backdrop of placid pink water in Burlington harbor.
Sean Morrissey
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Ferene Paris Meyer organized a sailing event for Juneteenth in Burlington.

Juneteenth is a holiday that dates back to 1865, when the last enslaved people were set free in this country. There’s a national debate underway over how racism and slavery should be remembered.

This story originally aired on North Country Public Radio. You can find the original piece, here.

But Black activists in Vermont and northern New York say the celebration has been re-energized in recent years and hope Juneteenth spurs a better understanding of Black history in America.More from NPR: Slavery Didn't End On Juneteenth. Here's What You Should Know About This Important Day

Ferene Paris Meyer didn't even hear about Juneteenth until she was in her 30s. It was 2018. She and a few other Black women were organizing an event in Burlington, where Paris Meyer lives. One of them suggested having the event on Juneteenth. 

“I was like, hold on. Come again? What is this Black holiday? I didn’t know, I had no idea,” Meyer said. 

"I really think that Juneteenth is an opportunity for America to heal, to start the healing process from this history that it just doesn't admit to." - Bianca Ellis

Once she learned more about Juneteenth, Paris Meyer says she wanted something this year for the Black Community to just get away. Paris Meyer had recently discovered sailing on Lake Champlain and wanted to share that experience with other Black people. 

“I was in awe of how beautiful it was to be on the water, how healing it was to be on the water and I just want them to come out and all they have to do is show up and we got them.” 

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From 20 local sponsors, Paris Meyer raised about $16,000 for the sailing event and for an urban farm and retreat for BIPOC people in Winooski. There are seven sailing trips throughout the Juneteenth weekend for 58 people.

The focus on healing is something that Bianca Ellis thinks about around Juneteenth, and not just for Black people. Ellis is a former Fort Drum Army officer. She’s been organizing Juneteenth events in Watertown for the last eight years. This year’s event all virtual.

“I really think that Juneteenth is an opportunity for America to heal, to start the healing process from this history that it just doesn’t admit to.”

For Ellis, that’s the true history of slavery— the brutality of it, how many people fought to preserve it, and how slowly it was abolished.

A woman wearing a mask and a Black Lives Matter t-shirt with a jean jacket stands in the forest in the Adirondacks.
Credit Benita-Law-Diao, Courtesy
Benita Law-Diao is a board member of John Brown Lives! and is helping organize the Juneteenth event at the farm in Lake Placid.

For Benita Law-Diao, it also means the history of Black people who weren't enslaved.

“Blacks were ship captains, they were in commerce. Everybody wasn’t a slave, even during slavery. There were free Blacks. What did we do? What were we doing? How did we contribute?”

Law-Diao has family members who were slaves and later sharecroppers in Alabama. She lives in Albany and is helping organize Saturday’s Juneteenth event at the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid.

There will be a dance performance, African drumming, and storytelling about the underground railroad. Law-Diao says she has deep respect for the abolitionist- the farm is named after.

“He stood up and said, ‘This is wrong, this is wrong. I’m a man of God and this is wrong and I can’t let this happen.’ He gave his life and for that, I am truly grateful, but it hurts when I think about how he had to lose his life in order for us to be free.”

More from VPR: (Un)fractured: Covering Race And Racial Injustice In Our Communities

There are Juneteenth events and celebrations across the North Country this weekend, including ones in Potsdam and Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs, Watertown and Lake Placid.

Paris Meyer from Burlington says there is a lot about what’s being honored on Juneteenth that is painful. She says the day is also a celebration of joy and freedom.

"Juneteenth actually should be the most bumping day in the summer for us here because of what it honors, what it teaches." - Ferene Paris Meyer

“Juneteenth actually should be the most bumping day in the summer for us here because of what it honors, what it teaches,” she said.

By honoring Black voices and Black experiences, Meyer says, the day teaches a more accurate version of American history and highlights a day when all Americans were finally free.

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