Irvington’s second annual Juneteenth celebration rally will be Saturday, June 19, at the Main Street School parking lot, from 2 to 5 p.m. The holiday, which commemorates the freeing of the last slaves during the Civil War, has also become an occasion to honor the cultural contributions of those who trace their origins to Africa; to discuss the echoes of slavery down through the generations; and to examine possible paths toward achieving social justice.
The Irvington event is free, and will include live music by Nkumu Katalay and the “Life Long Project” Band, with African dancers. Katalay is an artist, multi-instrumentalist, and social activist from Kinshasa, who now lives in New York City. His work reflects the influence of Congolese culture.
There will be Afro-Caribbean food trucks, artisans, and a roster of speakers, including social justice activists, elected officials, and clergy. Vinnie Bagwell of Yonkers, an artist known for her sculptures of prominent African Americans, as well as enslaved Africans, will talk about her work. There will also be a panel discussion to explore how the legacy of slavery relates to planning for community change.
Irvington could be regarded as a microcosm of such reform. Over the past year, the village board decided to open Matthiessen Park to the general public, removing a decades-old residents-only restriction that opponents of the restriction viewed as racist. The Village is working on plans for an educational installation at the site of what is believed to have been a slave burial ground, off South Buckhout Street. And a committee of volunteers has been raising funds to have Bagwell create a bas-relief sculpture commemorating the enslaved Africans of Irvington. The sculpture, mounted on a stone monument, will be installed on Main Street near the Rip Van Winkle statue. In addition, the Irvington School District is in the process of examining its educational practices, in an effort to foster racial equity.
The village board recently passed a resolution proclaiming Juneteenth an official holiday. A more controversial issue before the board is a set of proposed zoning changes for a portion of North Broadway that, if passed, could result in a significant increase in affordable multi-family housing, a step that could make owning or renting a home in the village attainable by more people of color.
Into all these currents and crosscurrents of change stepped Kelli Sherrelle Scott, a 31-year-old chef and recent transplant to Irvington. She organized the inaugural Juneteenth event in Irvington weeks after the May 24 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. She was helped by members of Irvington Activists, a local progressive group, and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.
This year’s event is more ambitious. The Juneteenth planning committee is made up of Scott and Arlene Burgos (one of the Irvington Democrats’ nominees for a seat on the village board) as co-chairs. Also on the committee are Peter Bernstein, Sarah Cox, and Lisa Genn. Co-sponsors of the event include the PTSA Diversity & Inclusion Committee, Irvington Activists, Commemorate, Historic Hudson Valley, and Saint Barnabas Church.
Juneteenth was a part of Scott’s childhood in Louisiana. “We always had Juneteenth celebrations,” she told the Enterprise on May 28. “It was a time that, especially for my parents, they had the freedom to be comfortable in their own skin, at least for Juneteenth. We could celebrate our culture and not be condemned for it, talk in our languages and not be condemned for it, dance in the streets. Things that were not accepted in certain communities became acceptable on Juneteenth.”
Amid the positive developments, there have been setbacks, in the form of racist incidents. On May 25, Jane Fankhanel and Roger Burkhardt, 30-year residents of East Irvington, discovered that a Black Lives Matter sign they had installed at the end of their private driveway off Taxter Road had been defaced. It was the fifth time the couple had put up a BLM sign on their property, only to find it damaged. “We’ve tried to make this one more secure,” Fankhanel said. Her husband sank some poles into concrete to anchor the new sign, and shielded the sign with Plexiglas. The haters, however, persisted; someone obliterated the message with a can of white spray paint, news of which spread on social media.
“A number of the activists came out from Irvington, Tarrytown, and Dobbs Ferry,” Burkhardt said. Scott was among those who rushed to the scene, climbing up a ladder to clean the damaged sign.
“Someone posted it onto the Irvington Activists’ social media page, on that day, which happened to be the one-year anniversary of George Floyd,” Scott said. ‘There’s already emotional significance to the day, and basically this was adding insult to injury. I had to do something, so I went down to the local hardware store and got some graffiti remover.”
Other local supporters arrived with homemade BLM signs, affixing them to the poles that held the damaged sign. “It was quite a showing of support,” Fankhanel said. “It was kind of heartwarming,” Burkhardt agreed.
That was not the end of the story. On May 31, according to Burkhardt, “Someone came on our driveway and put a competing ‘BLM’ in blue paint with a peace sign around it.” Burkhardt interpreted the graffiti to be an anti-Black Lives Matter slogan. He added that anti-BLM signs had been placed on public property near his home.
Greenburgh police did not return a request for information about the investigation into the Taxter Road incident, which was at least the second BLM sign vandalism to occur in the town in May; the other happened a week before on Knollwood Road.