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‘We must teach our history’

“We still struggle with racism today,” said Rayah Levy, the master of ceremonies on Juneteenth eve. She was speaking to over 100 celebrants who gathered that evening at Bethlehem’s sculpture Garden next to city hall.

In a joyous get together, a crowd comprised of different races and cultures, academics, politicians and local citizens listened to music, were entertained by dancers, and listened to speeches. They were all commemorating the first, national holiday of Juneteenth.

“Never forget the millions of people who were enslaved,” Rayah Levy said. “Let’s take a step back in history and remember all who were enslaved.

“We must not forget our history,” said Levy. “We must teach our history. We must teach it and we must say it loud. We must say it out loud and continue to share our history because it is extremely, extremely important to not forget our history.”

She said Africans were living in Bethlehem in 1741. “Esther Lee’s family came here in the 1800s. There is history here. And we must learn the history. We must learn about where we live.”

Bethlehem NAACP Chapter President Esther Lee said, “We have begun to work together to accomplish our ends. There is much to be done in the Lehigh Valley. We do it within our own city.

“Our family came here in the late 1800s. We had Negroes, colored people, African Americans, Black folks-whatever name the white man attached to us we answered to. We didn’t stand up for what we believed it should be, but we answered to what we are called. It’s almost like being in slavery.

“I was asked what I thought about Juneteenth being set apart as a holiday. It’s another day, and I hope it’s not used by businessmen to set up for shopping. I would hope each year we can come together and have a celebration, a joyful time remembering our forefathers, and sisters and mothers and what they went through. I’m a great-granddaughter of a slave. I’ve looked at her history and given much thought about how she, as a black woman, had to give herself to my great-grandfather, who was a white Englishman; and to have no choice, but she raised nine children.

“We are making strides in the world today, but in order to demolish what they call systemic racism, there is much that has to be done. We need to get busy doing it. There’s going to have be a give and take. And you know where the giving is going to have to come from. I don’t have to remind you it’s a white man’s world. So, we need to get busy doing what we have to.

“I enjoy doing things. I will never sit down and let someone else do the job that I can do. I would not have done well during slavery because you had to be submissive. I’m not even submissive today and I’m an old woman. I would admonish people to stay strong and come together more in what we’re doing. People, don’t be afraid of one another. We are all fighting for the same cause. We can all work together and we can educate one another and move forward in improving the Bethlehem area. If we deal with one place at a time, we will make accomplishments. Don’t try to take on the world. You know everyone wants to come together. We will move forward one with the other. It’s never going to happen with me sitting on my side and you sitting on yours.”

“We have to be vigilant to make sure that freedom rings,” said state Representative Stephen Samuelson, one of several local politicians to attend the event.

“Jim Crow laws took a century to get rid of. We see voting rights being chipped away.”

Attendees got a history lesson from Rabbi and Northampton Community College professor Sholomo Levy.

“Every civilized country ended slavery before we did,” said Rabbi Levy.

He went on to describe the history of several emancipation proclamations and military orders that were issue during and immediately following the Civil War.

General Gordon Granger’s proclamation was different from Lincoln’s in that it claimed “absolute equality in personal rights and rights of property” for the newly freed slaves.

Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, and on June 19, 1865 proclaimed that all enslaved persons were thereby freed.

Granger’s General Order No. 3 proclaimed the news more than a month after the formal end of the Civil War and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Granger’s general order and his enforcement of it ended slavery in Texas. The date began to be celebrated as Juneteenth.

“Black people did not receive equality then,” argued Rabbi Levy. Instead, they found themselves “sharecropping,” which he called “legalized peony [sic]” which led to a “system of debt.”

He also reminded the audience that a proclamation is an executive order, not a law. It took a constitutional amendment to end slavery in the United States.

Walter Felton of the Allentown NAACP came with other Allentown NAACP members to demonstrate solidarity with the Bethlehem NAACP.

Poet Abigale Brown read Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

Philadelphia-based dance troupe En L’ Air Company provided entertainment for the event. The dancers include Shairah Kibler, Nadya Cherry, Amaya White and Cabria Thompson. The director of the troupe is Christina M. Talley.

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez and Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure each declared that June 19, 2021 would be known as “Juneteenth Day” in their respective jurisdictions.

Iysis Nickens, a sophomore at Liberty HS, attended the Juneteenth celebration with her grandmother, Tomacene Nickens of Bethlehem.
Mayor Robert Donchez and Bethlehem NAACP Chapter President Esther Lee. Speaker Rayah Levy announced plans to establish The Esther M. Lee African-American Heritage Center in Bethlehem. “Trust me, it will happen,” he said.
Walter Felton of the Allentown NAACP came with other Allentown NAACP members show solidarity with Bethlehem's NAACP.
Poet Abigale Brown read Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Rayah Levi was the Master of Ceremony for the Juneteenth event at the Sculpture Gardens next to city hall.
Guest speakers included Pa. Representative Stephen Samuelson, Mayor Robert Donchez, Northampton Executive Lamont McClure and Rabbi and Northampton Community College professor Sholomo Levy.
“We have to be vigilant to make sure that freedom rings,” said state Representative Stephen Samuelson.
PRESS PHOTOS BY DOUGLAS GRAVES A newly created Juneteenth banner announces the purpose of the gathering.