Artists participate in an exhibit at Brookhaven Town Hall while celebrating Juneteenth, the national holiday marking the day more than 150 years ago when slaves in Texas learned they were free and that slavery in the United States had ended.   Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

For Tracy Todd Hunter of Patchogue, Juneteenth is a deeply personal reminder that slavery occurred not so long ago.

Hunter, a curator of a Juneteenth art exhibit opening this week at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville, said his thoughts turned to his great-grandparents — who he said may have been slaves themselves — as he selected paintings and photographs for the show.

The exhibit, which runs through July 15, is one of several events organized by Brookhaven officials to mark Juneteenth, or June 19, which last year was declared a national holiday by President Joe Biden. 

“I think people tend to think slavery was so long ago, why are they making such a big deal about it?" Hunter, 59, said Monday as he hung paintings in the second-floor exhibit area. "Ninety-seven years before I was born, during the time of my great-grandparents, [there] were slaves. ... That's a very close call."

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Black slaves in Texas learned they were free — 2 ½ years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

To many Black Americans, Juneteenth is like a second Independence Day, said Leah Jefferson, a member of Brookhaven's Black History Commission.

"Juneteenth is really important because it's the day that every person in America is finally free," Jefferson said.

Hunter said he collected about 40 pieces of art for the exhibit, including photographs, quilts, mixed media works, oil paintings, watercolors and images made with colored pencils and magic markers. 

Not all the artists are Black, Hunter said, adding that the artworks' topics range from former first lady Michelle Obama to Patchogue artist Marchandt Pinkney's "The Kiss," an oil painting of a couple reconciling following a separation.

Pinkney said that painting and a mixed media work she contributed, "The Other Side of Flowers," express her feelings about the nation's newest holiday.

"It represents our culture and our emotions, the pain we went through as a culture and as a people," she said. "I like to show that emotion in the paintings that I do."

Jefferson, the town's deputy commissioner of housing and community development, said Brookhaven began hosting Juneteenth celebrations eight years ago, with the encouragement of Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine.

This year's event will be held from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at Longwood Estate, a town park in Ridge, and will feature musical performances, food, trivia games and other events, Jefferson said.

"It's like a day of celebration," she said. "We want people of all nationalities and backgrounds to come celebrate and understand history."

Local historian Georgette Grier-Key, a co-curator of the exhibit, said holding the celebration at the Longwood Estate is especially poignant because it is believed the Smith family, the property's 18th century owners, were slaveholders.

"It's even more of a reason to have it there and talk about how far we have come," said Grier-Key, also a member of the Brookhaven Black history commission. "I think it's really important for us to look at our history and see how slavery was an important part of the Town of Brookhaven."

Juneteenth history

Jan. 1, 1863: President Abe Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves held in Confederate states.

April 9, 1865: Civil War ends.

June 19, 1865: Black slaves in Galveston, Texas, learn they are free when federal troops arrive to take control of the state. "Juneteenth" is celebrated as an unofficial holiday for the next 114 years.

June 7, 1979: Texas declares Juneteenth a state holiday.

October 2020: Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs executive order declaring Juneteenth an official New York state holiday.

June 17, 2021: President Joe Biden makes Juneteenth a federal holiday.

SOURCES: News files, history.com

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