MONTICELLO, NY — June 18, 1865. A day in history that was kept quiet for so long. We didn’t learn about it in history class. It wasn’t talked about on the news. I thought I was …
MONTICELLO, NY — June 19, 1865. A day in history that was kept quiet for so long. We didn’t learn about it in history class. It wasn’t talked about on the news. I thought I was alone when I had no idea that Juneteenth existed.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. Only recently did Juneteenth become a federal holiday.
So why the secret? Why was such an important day in history kept hush? How has this affected the Black community? And what can we do to help bring the silence to an end?
I sat down with the co-program directors of the Black Library to find out what Juneteenth means to them.
Douglas Shindler is a half-Black photographer and painter, and Michael Davis is a Black Guyanese-American photographer.
Davis began by talking to me about the irony in Juneteenth. He said that especially for us northerners, the day was kept a secret.
Juneteenth is a celebration of slaves being told they were free—not when they became free, but when they learned it—two and a half years after they were legally emancipated.
“[The slaves] knowing they were free was the mark of the Juneteenth celebration,” Davis explained. “[This] education being kept from us, I believe, especially in the public school system, was incredibly ironic because it was the same kind of story playing over and over again.”
This was all news to me. Until my world was flipped upside down by witnessing George Floyd’s murder in 2020, I had no idea of the extent to which racism still occurred in this country today. I was ignorant. When I heard of this education center on black history and culture being opened in Sullivan County, I had to learn more about this project.
Shindler and Davis partnered with Tal Beery and Elayne Hutchinson of the Hurleyville Performing Arts Centre. They received the Creatives Rebuild New York – Artist Employment Program Grant, which funded the Black Library, “a vibrant community art space focused on celebrating Black History and Culture.”
Davis explained that their project is creating a community of leadership and mentorship for youth; this will begin an overall cycle of positive belief in and confidence in oneself. That will lead to positive acting and thinking in people across Sullivan County.
Shindler added that the Black Library is a space “that highlights who our current local leaders are, bringing people to them to network with, lead the younger generations, and grow them into future local leaders. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating.”
The brilliance of these young men is evident in their educational model. Shindler and Davis are ready, eager and knowledgeable, with the tools and plans necessary to make a difference.
I was curious. “What motivated you in doing this project?” I asked. “Have you personally experienced racism?”
As they chuckled and agreed that Shindler should start, he shared his story of being raised in poverty. He was mostly raised by his Black mom, while his dad was in and out of prison. He moved from one place to the next, mainly living in Monticello or Albany. Then he moved to Jeffersonville toward the end of fifth grade and started going to the Sullivan West school. “It was a complete culture shock,” he said.
Shindler stated that fellow students had an “ignorant hatred for anything that wasn’t white. I cannot count the number of times I was called the N-word at that school. It’s too many to count.”
He continued, “At the end of the day, I invite all of these people to come to the Black Library, because they are the perfect candidates to learn about Black history and culture and reverse what has been done to them by their grandparents and parents.”
I was inspired by his open heart to those who displayed such hatred towards him in his younger years.
“That didn’t fly so well in Monticello,” Davis exclaimed underneath his laughter. “A lot of the racism that I experienced was in elementary school. I remember an Italian student telling me I should go back to Guyana. I’m like, you’re Italian,” as we all continued laughing.
I ended the interview with a smile on my face, impressed that these young men could find humor in all the darkness they experienced. And how they have turned it around so profoundly, creating this space for us all to learn and grow from, as we take steps toward breaking the cycle of unrecognized racism while creating these positive cycles of transformation to take its place.
Editor's note: The print edition of this article misstated the date of Juneteenth as June 18, 1865.
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