Telling the tale of Juneteenth, while including recent tragedy in the lesson
The City of Buffalo, which for many years has hosted some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the nation, was preparing to host its first public gathering to mark the event since the COVID pandemic.
Meanwhile, educators preparing their lessons on the meaning of Juneteenth had a new element to include in this year’s lessons — last month’s mass shooting, the latest chapter in an often painful history for African-Americans.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date when Union soldiers informed the last remaining Confederate slaves in Galveston, Texas that they were freed.
It had become a federal holiday only last year. Earlier in the month, middle school students in the Springville-Griffith Institute school district were visited by Dianna Cummings, who performed as Harriet Tubman, the famed activist who helped lead countless escapees to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“I feel as if they really get to see and hear more about it, you learn more when you see it. And the children, they really liked me coming in and telling them about Harriet, and the experience that Harriet had,” Cummings said. “They get more out of that than just by reading it in a book. They get to see someone really acting and giving them that experience.”
Cummings plays Tubman in classrooms throughout the area. Her audience in Springville was predominantly white students.
Superintendent James Bialasik told WBFO their student population is 94 percent white children. But he said there are other diversities among the students, and thus the message remains the same: what’s important are acceptance and kindness.
“We want to make sure that we are we're always treating people the right way,” he said. “I think it's important to build that capacity, especially when you're in a district that is not as diverse in terms of race, that students understand that there are lots of differences out there in the world. And regardless of those differences, we always want to be treating people the right way.”
Social studies teacher Drew Beiter recruited Cummings to appear before students in Springville. When putting together lessons, there were two challenges. One was to make sure the kids received lessons earlier in the month, as most will be taking final exams around the time of the actual Juneteenth holiday.
The second challenge was including the recent Buffalo mass shooting into the lessons and discussions, pointing out that the accused shooter is alleged to have targeted his victims specifically because of their race.
“What we try to do here at Springville is make sure that our students connect to the fact that ending racism begins with them,” Beiter said. “This Juneteenth holiday is one that is, I feel very strongly, it's not an African-American holiday. It's one about human freedom. When people found out about the liberation of the slaves, when slaves found out about their liberation, of course they were joyful and they should be. This holiday is commemorating that very American moment. But today in Springville and in Kenmore and in North Tonawanda we're all African-American, especially after the tragedy, what happened at Tops. We need to see this history as our own.”
Cummings was only one individual invited to meet with kids about racism this month.
Joining her in Springville was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who shared her family’s experience surviving the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and warning students about the dangers of white supremacy and white nationalism.
“Our students saw that racism can have many manifestations. But the Juneteenth holiday is one where we celebrate our unity as freedom loving people to fight back against the darker forces in human nature,” Beiter said.
Springville is about 30 miles from downtown Buffalo. When asked about educating students about the Buffalo mass shooting, Bialasik noted that people in that part of Erie County also consider themselves from Buffalo.
"We all identify with that city, that area. We have a lot of pride. Just because we're 25 minutes south, it doesn't mean that we have any less pride in our city and all the things that Buffalo represents, and all the wonderful things that have been happening in that city in the last 10 years. I mean, it's been a great Renaissance" he said. "I think it hurt all of us, regardless of where we live in the Western New York area, when that happened. And we all, you know, feel terribly for the families that experienced loss. We feel terribly that it even happened. And so, from that perspective, we're all part of a Western New York community, and so we grieve just like everyone else does."
Cummings grew up in Georgia, but her husband is from Buffalo. WBFO met her on Jefferson Avenue on a Wednesday morning, not far from the still-closed Tops Market and the growing memorial to the shooting victims. She spoke excitedly about the city’s traditional celebrations of Juneteenth and again of her interactions with students, urban and suburban, while sharing Tubman’s legacy and Western New York’s role in the Underground Railroad.
"A lot of them didn't know that Harriet came through this area, through Syracuse, Rochester. They didn't know that. They didn't know that Frederick Douglass even preached at the Michigan Street Baptist Church, and then he would go and preach at the AME Zion Church. They didn't know that," Cummings said. "A lot of the histories that happened, happened right here in Buffalo. I mean, we have the Michigan Street Corridor, we have Lewiston, we have Roycroft. We have different spots here that the children don't even know about."
President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863. But it took more than two years for word to travel and be received by slaves in the Confederacy. Cummings, when discussing the length of time it took to spread the word, offered a warm, humorous reply.
“The word got out late, but I'm going to tell you, when the word came out, you can best believe them dishes got slammed on the floor, and they’d gone out the door,” she said with a laugh.