Updated: 6/21/21 – 2:31 P.M.
VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Juneteenth was celebrated as a federal holiday across the U.S. for the first time on Saturday. Elmira commemorated the 20th anniversary of the first Juneteenth event in the city at Ernie Davis Park.
Hundreds of people gathered at the park for the event, the theme of which was “Devoted to Unity” with a focused on education of Black history and cultural awareness.
Kids gathered in a circle to listen to a reading of “Beautiful Blackbird” by Ashley Bryant. The story is about a group of birds who admire the beauty of a black bird, and so they ask the black bird to paint them black.
The message of the book is declared in its final line: “Black is beautiful, UH-HUH!”
Many people at the event expressed the importance of teaching children about Juneteenth.
Touring Underground Railroad History
As part of the event, bus tours highlighted the city’s connection to the Underground Railroad. The tour was narrated by Cleveland Thrower, host of the Senior Notebook on WENY.
Thrower said the area used to be dirt roads where people traveled on horseback. He told a story about an abolitionist who rode to Big Flats, a distance of about ten miles, to warn slave patrols were in the region and heading their way.
The tour passed homes of abolitionists, 413 Lake Street, also known as the Pratt House, was home to Jervis Langdon, who sheltered Fredrick Douglass before moving to Elmira and helping John W. Jones.
Jones, an escaped slave himself, assisted hundreds of people to freedom. The home is now a community arts building. The house next door, 415 Lake Street, is no longer there but was a meeting place for people who objected to the pro-slavery learnings of the Presbyterian Church.
The tour also included historic churches, at one point it stopped with the Park Church on the left and the Trinity Episcopal Church ahead, featuring big red doors.
“That church has in the basement a lot of catacombs and a lot of secret passageways and rooms where a lot of the slaves were actually held until they could go and be moved to different areas,” Thrower explained.
John W. John’s final house was the last stop of the tour. It is now a museum with an heirloom vegetable garden in the yard. It opened for the season on Juneteenth.
COVID-19 Vaccination Education
The people who gathered on Saturday were celebrating freedom from slavery, but also seeing each other after many have been isolated because of COVID-19. Dr. Victor Kolade of Guthrie Medical Group in Sayre, PA, a Black doctor, was available for people to ask any outstanding questions they had regarding the vaccine.*
“We’ve just been given information to share with y’all as part of our vaccine education,” the announcer said over the loudspeaker, “At this point, 39 percent of Chemung County has been vaccinated.”
As of Monday morning, according to state data, just over 43 percent of the county is partially vaccinated. Statewide, more than 70 percent have at least one dose.
*This story was updated to include the name and practice information for the doctor. Full discloser: Guthrie is a WSKG Underwriter.