Peekskill Juneteenth: An Interview with Tuesday Paige McDonald

Excerpt from an interview with Tuesday Paige McDonald, Executive Director of City of Peekskill Youth Bureau and Minister of Music at Mount Olivet Baptist Church.

Aaron Paige (AP): How did the first Juneteenth celebration in Peekskill come about?

Tuesday Paige McDonald (TM): Years ago, the former executive director, Valerie Swan put Juneteenth together with assistance from the City and other leaders. That particular year, the first year we had our Juneteenth, White Plains did not have their typical Juneteenth Celebration. That was 11 years ago. When she learned this, she said, we should do one in Peekskill. That Juneteenth the City of Peekskill just lit up. I vividly remember that first Juneteenth Parade and Festival. Oh gosh, the energy just illuminated this city. There was a big parade and from the parade, we walked down to green river front green. We had business vendors, craft vendors, food vendors, all of our local partners, with tables and tents. We had the main stage with music featuring all local musicians and musicians from New York City. I’ll just say, she was onto something. And it’s been non-stop since then. That was about five years ago. Valerie Swan retired 5 years ago and when she retired they started a Juneteenth Heritage Committee. And that was what was needed because prior to that, Varier was able to solicit a lot of the local leaders to assist, but having that Juneteenth Heritage Committee brought more even more support.

The celebration in 2019, I tell you, that was one of the best Juneteenths. They were all great, but in 2019, we just came together and brought a whole other level of energy to the table. We had a lot of community partners that year. I think what’s happened is that the more our country pays attention to Juneteenth, new partners want to be a part of it. You know, people didn’t really know what it was. Right. And many people thought, oh, a parade. Nice. Right. But not thinking about what it really meant to those of us who knew why we were celebrating. It has always been more than a parade and festival for us. It is bringing awareness to the community about why this celebration is so important.

AP: Are there any parts of the Peekskill celebration of Juneteenth that you find to be unique, that you particularly appreciate about your celebration?

TM: I love that we have a massive parade and festival on the very day of Juneteenth. When you leave the parade site and you are walking down, to the rive front green, you literally can’t even see the ground, because, there are so many vendors, so many people, and the people are not only from Peekskill. People take the train in from New York City to be a part of it and from other local area. But to me, it the partnership, the number of people that come together in our community to make sure that it happens and that it grows. Some of our key partners include the NAACP, the school district, New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, and Sun River Health, previously known, as Hudson River Healthcare. Revered Phillips, one of the Founders of Sun River Health has been a huge part of the festival. She was on the committee when Valerie and then later joined the Heritage Committee. She is someone you always want at the table because if she is there it’s going to work.

The ritual that I love most in our Juneteenth is how we start our celebration in Park Street AME Zion Church. Before our parade starts, we meet there and we have a small program where we have prayer and the singing of the Black national anthem. It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on what this means. There is always a leader in the community who takes the time to talk about why we’re here. Almost like a statement of purpose. I love that we start there because of the connection between Park Street AME Zion church and the underground railroad and all the history there.

AP: What does Juneteenth mean to you and has it’s meaning changed at all over time?

TM: For me, it’s a day that symbolizes the slow march of progress. I’m not one who sits around the table and says that we haven’t made any progress. But, I also feel that we have a long struggle ahead to reach equality. We still have much work to do. Just going back to June 2020, and the whole uprising with George Floyd…and then you think about Juneteenth coming. We were right on the heels of Juneteenth. We want to be able to say that there is equality in the world 156 years later but how much have we really progressed in that respect? And then when we call attention to this, they want to bump us on our heads for speaking up. George Floyd’s killing really sparked something in all of us and for me it made Juneteenth all that more powerful. And thank goodness that I grew up in a household where we learned about Black history. Last year 2020 with the COVID pandemic and seeing the racism, the blatant racism right before my eyes, Juneteenth became even more powerful for me. It helped me to reflect and be conscious of how much further we have to go. I’m looking back and I’m saying, wow, how did my ancestors go through this and still be so resilient. They did it. I mean, I can’t imagine being free and not actually finding out. I mean, how does that happen? You know?

AP: What do you have planned for 2021?

TM: It’s going to be beautiful and I am really excited. We are not going to have a parade this year because of COVID, and to avoid being any kind of super spreader. But we are going to be able to meet in person and walk around with some freedom. We are starting off in the morning with a private outdoor brunch in honor of our Grand Marshalls Reverend Gary Colter who is the Pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, Dr. Margie Daniels, the administrator for equity and inclusion for the school district, and Sisters In Support. Their president La Fern Joseph is known for putting together the underground railroad tours.

From 1-3PM we are going to go to Peekskill’s Depew Park. There we are going to have music. We’re going to have spoken word by our youth, as well as a twenty minute play that will be presented by New Era Creative Space. We’ll have two food trucks there. And the field is huge. We’ll be out there with out masks with social distancing to keep it safe. We are responsible and we will be safe. We are going for it and I am very excited about that!

In the evening, the NAACP is going to do a virtual event which will give people an opportunity to attend and celebrate Juneteenth who maybe aren’t gathering in person outside. So everyone will have the opportunity to celebrate, whether it is outside with your mask on, or from the comfort of your own home.

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