By Cameron Orr
BUFFALO, NY — Juneteenth, the mid-June holiday that commemorates the day in 1865 on which enslaved people of African descent in Galveston, Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, has been growing in popularity. Buffalo, New York now hosts the third largest Juneteenth Festival in the nation, and the largest on the eastern seaboard. Filling Martin Luther King Park June 17 with a procession of music, drumming, and dance, the 2017 celebrations were jubilant. The smell of smoked foods swirled through the park as stands displayed traditional African-American clothing and handicrafts alongside various community organizations.
The holiday’s history is a bittersweet one. Led by the laboring base of the Southern economy, the revolution that won the Civil War established a Reconstruction of the South. Historian Eric Foner has called the Reconstruction period “America’s unfinished revolution,” because it was cut short with a counter-revolution: Jim Crow.
The system of convict leasing, which Pulitzer-Prize winning author and journalist Douglas Blackmon calls “slavery by another name,” also persisted into the twentieth century; today’s version of subminimum-wage labor in prisons is its direct descendant.
In Buffalo, the celebration and parade included many labor groups including: New York State Nurses Association; Communications Workers of America Local 1168, the Buffalo Teachers Federation; the United Auto Workers Local 774, 897, and Region 9; and AFSCME D.C. 35 .
Also participating in the festival were the Young Black Democrats of Western New York, and open Buffalo, an organization which helps coordinate organizations and coalitions struggling for a more democratic Buffalo, including People United for Fair Housing (PUSH), Coalition for Economic Justice (CEJ), Prisoners Are People Too, Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, VOICE-Buffalo, and others. Leaders of Community Voices Heard (CVH) were also represented in the CPUSA contingent.
Stacy Fernandez of the Buffalo News also noted an increased police presence at the festival this year.
The Young Black Democrats of WNY alerted festival participants of the need to vote for Bernie Tolbert for Erie County Sheriff. Tolbert is running to replace Timothy B. Howard. Under Howard’s watch, many people have reportedly died in jail while waiting for trial, the use of devices known as Stingrays have been used to tap people’s cell phones, and Howard himself spoke at a Trump rally with people holding the Confederate flag behind him.
Communist Party USA (CPUSA) members highlighted another piece of slavery’s legacy: forced labor in the Work Exchange Program (WEP).
Put into place by the Clinton administration in 1996, WEP required people on public assistance to work without pay. Public workers received rewards for connecting people to poverty wage jobs at places like McDonald’s, and after the six month period of working for free, public benefits recipients were frequently fired. Disproportionately affecting racially and nationally oppressed people, the work-for-free program resulted in a spike in homelessness in New York City, and was finally ended by a CVH-led campaign and a progressive Mayor, City Council, and Human Resources Commissioner at the end of 2016. However, a similar program called WeCare persists, and what appears to be a lack of communication between HRA and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has resulted in outcomes similar to those that followed WEP.