Dr. Andrew Hunter, chief hospitalist at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream,...

Dr. Andrew Hunter, chief hospitalist at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, spoke during a "Juneteenth: Liberation to Legacy" event at the hospital Friday. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Dr. Andrew Hunter led his audience through a journey of his family tree, tracing a continuum that ran from enslavement to emancipation to empowerment that his people — the Andrews and Hunter and Hess families — experienced.

But Hunter also suggested that in his story were commonalities with others of diverse cultures where struggles and triumphs over obstacles can resonate.

One branch of his family's story begins in South Carolina "sometime in the 1700s," said Hunter, chief hospitalist at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital since 2017. He was speaking as part of the hospital's Juneteenth celebration, called "Juneteenth: Liberation to Legacy," a program that included music, poetry, food and inspirational commentary.

Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday last year, marks when the enslaved population in Texas learned they were free — on June 19, 1865, 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.

"I am a proud African American who traces his family history back to the antebellum South. Back to the days when, quite frankly, my family were enslaved," Hunter said in an interview. "Emancipation — freedom — really brings my family [in] full form and starts our legacy in the United States."

Over the course of a half hour, Hunter recounted highlights of his family's journey to more than 100 of his hospital colleagues in a basement auditorium. His presentation included a video clip of his late grandmother, Minda Hunter, feeding chickens and tending a garden on some of the 1,718 acres he said was acquired by his ancestors after slavery.

"So the history of the Andrews, Hunter and Hess family is an oil tapestry woven across two hundred years of American history. I am a small branch of a mighty tree. I'm honored to share my story, my family's story, with you."

Hunter started with the life of his enslaved ancestors.

 "We don't really know the full history. ... Tales of slave ships crossing the ocean. Tales of markets in Charleston, South Carolina, where my family was inspected like produce, were the nightmares that I had as a child growing up," he said.

"Our family story was ... passed through during family gatherings. Christmas reunions. These were the stories that our elders told us to make sure that we understood and knew our history," Hunter said.

He said family lore was that his enslaved ancestors "toiled in the fields with tobacco and cotton. We took care of the Big House" of their enslaver. He said they were taught "numbers and letters so we could provide for the plantation. Life was good, until it wasn't. Life was good until marriages were broken up on a whim. Life was good until children were sent away to another farm, sometimes never to be seen again. Life was good until it was inconvenient for those that owned my family."

Freedom would come in 1863, and his ancestors would become landowners, and successive generations would see educational and professional gains. 

Joseph Bynum, manager of imaging services in radiology and cardiology at the hospital, said he began the Juneteenth program last year when it became a national holiday. "A lot of people were asking questions" about Juneteenth, said Bynum, who added he had to educate himself about it as well. "I said you know what, let's make this moment monumental."

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