It’s been a long time coming, but the day for change is here. Saturday, June 18th, was a day of pride, especially for the African American community in Bayonne, NJ. Folks gathered to commemorate the city’s first Juneteenth celebration. The historical festival honoring our culture and history was sponsored by the Bayonne branch of the NAACP and took place at the city’s 16th Street Park. Rarely had there been anything so culturally celebratory of this magnitude in the community and it’s about time.
Juneteenth honored the day when Major General Gordon Granger went to Galveston, Texas, with more than 2,000 soldiers informing Blacks still enslaved that they were free. The event occurred two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. For many, Juneteenth symbolizes freedom and a reminder to continue the fight for racial justice and equality.
Support for the event poured in from various organizations, businesses, and churches to help make the vital celebration happen. The city of Bayonne is a mosaic of different people, ages, ethnicities, and cultures. Irene Pyke, the chairperson for the NAACP Education Committee for the Bayonne Branch, was pleased with the community’s participation in the festival. According to Pyke, “The vision for the Juneteenth event was to bring all kinds of people together to celebrate. We are living in such a time of division and unrest. The event’s mission was definitely accomplished by seeing the crowd gather and hearing the positive excitement.”
Bill Holmes, a writer, poet, and the writer/director of the independent short film The Program, was the perfect MC for the entertainment program. The South Jersey resident reveled in all of the festivities, “It was an honor to be a part of and to witness history being made as the NAACP Bayonne Chapter celebrated its inaugural Juneteenth event. The diversity of the lineup–spoken word poets, musicians, high school steppers and drama team, African dancers, singers–appealed to everyone in attendance regardless of their cultural background.”
One of the performing poets known as Demetrius tha Poet, hails from Trenton, NJ’s Wilbur section. He’s been living in Bayonne with his wife, Liz, for the past eight years. Demetrius was a semi-finalist at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a finalist in Def Poetry’s Philly Slam, and was a regular at the legendary Bogies, Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, and Warmdaddy’s in Philly. The creative, whose new book Where There’s Smoke was just released, expresses: “This was a great and significant cultural event. The diverse talents from Bayonne and beyond who came together to remember this historical event were amazing. So glad to have been a part of it.”
A well-known pillar of the Bayonne community, Margaret Hamiel, 86, was incredibly proud to see the city’s monumental celebration. She came to Bayonne in 1959 from Greenville, SC. During World War I and II, many African Americans from the south migrated to the north, and those like Hamiel found their way to Bayonne. She was a teacher in Bayonne for many years, and in 2019, the city bestowed upon her the Bayonne Senior of the Year Award. A member of the NAACP for more than 50 years, Hamiel greatly supported the Juneteenth event and felt it was high time. “It was good to see the people of the Bayonne community come together to enjoy themselves. It shows that we have some power to make things happen,” says Hamiel.
Two days prior to the Juneteenth event, Hamiel had attended the raising of the Pan-African flag at city hall. It was organized by the community-based organization Black in Bayonne, whose mission is to implement positive political and social change for the city’s minority residents and promote Black excellence. Hamiel said attending the raising of the flag and the Juneteenth celebration were both great for our children to see. “I know we don’t talk about everything to our children, but we must take the time to do so. They need to know about our history, put their phones away and also be aware of what’s happening in the Bayonne community,” says the octogenarian.
Donald Byrd III, president of the NAACP Bayonne branch and founder of the Donald Byrd Cultural Foundation appreciated the support for the celebration received from the City of Bayonne, Public Works, and the Bayonne Police Department (BPD). “When we went over the logistics of how we were going to plan for the event, my main emphasis was on security and control. Lieutenant David Conti and Sgt. Steven Rhodes assured me that safety would be a primary goal. Sgt. Rhodes, along with the Community Policing Unit and The Bayonne Police Explorers, provided great security for the event,” says Byrd. As a result of BPD’s involvement and planning, no incidents were reported.
There were vendors, food trucks, live entertainment, and even a basketball tournament. The event’s vibrant environment felt more like a reunion of family and friends. Even many former Bayonne residents came back to support the successful event.
When the Djelikounda Dance Group from Guinea, West Africa, took to the stage with their riveting performance, the excitement levels were kicked up a notch. The amazing dances even included audience participation. We were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of Aboubacar Soumah, AKA Boubah, the CEO of Conakry Nouvelles, an organization that focuses on developing culture in Guinea and Africa. He danced on stage with the African dancers and even demonstrated dance moves to a few Bayonne High School Drama Society members who also performed at the event. Soumah also live-streamed part of the event internationally for Conakry Nouvelles TV in Guinea, West Africa.
The Juneteenth festival ended with an amazing performance by Joshua Nelson, whose stirring and powerful singing style has been compared to the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson.
Bayonne’s first Juneteenth celebration set the tone for next year’s festivities. The event was not only a celebration but also a kind of groundwork for the progressive changes that lie ahead for the northeast Jersey community.
Here is a pictorial spread highlighting the unforgettable performances and activities from Bayonne’s historic Juneteenth celebration.