By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Montclair has never before celebrated Juneteenth with a town-wide slate of activities.

But, Rodney Jackson, a co-founder of the Teachers Undoing Racism Now! Group in the Montclair Public Schools, said when the district added the day to its calendar, that prompted a conversation that led to this year’s week-long celebration.

This year’s celebration begins Monday and includes in-person and virtual events, with film screenings, guest speakers and performances. They conclude on June 19 — Juneteenth itself — which marks the end of slavery in Texas and in the United States overall.

“The message we want to get across is the importance of knowing the role African Americans played in gaining their freedom,” Rodney Jackson, a co-founder of the “Teachers Undoing Racism Now!” program at Montclair schools and an organizer of the event, said. “We have been conditioned to believe that African Americans were bystanders in ending slavery. We need to change that perception. African American resistance was the central reason slavery ended. Juneteenth is an opportunity for us to change the narrative and tell the story of how slavery really ended.”

TURN had sent a letter to then-new schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds last year, Jackson, who is also a Renaissance Middle School social studies teacher, said. Members of the group met with Ponds, Board of Education President Latifah Jannah and Kalisha Morgan, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction, asking that Juneteenth be added to the school calendar and that Columbus Day be replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day. In September of last year, the Board of Education approved the changes

Jackson also met earlier this year with Diane Anglin, the education committee chair from the Montclair NAACP, to discuss holding a community-wide event, recognizing the school system marking Juneteenth on its calendar for the first time, he said. The discussion included NAACP President Albert Pelham; Vanguard Theater Company Managing Director Jessica Sporn; New Jersey Association of Black Educators President James Harris; and Elaine Spears, who is both the director of program services at the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation and part of the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation.

“We came up with a week-long Juneteenth event that addresses the three themes of Educate, Resist and Liberate,” Jackson said. Representatives of the district, the Montclair Art Museum, and several community groups also lent their support, he said.

Fleet Feet Montclair was among the first businesses to get on board, and “they have been a tremendous support in helping us to the finish line,” Jackson said.

In addition, early this month, Mayor Sean Spiller announced Montclair will be observing Juneteenth as a public holiday. Municipal offices will be closed Friday.

For years, Jackson said, the township community has celebrated the annual Montclair African American Heritage Foundation parade and festival (this year, organizers instead held a car caravan, due to coronavirus pandemic precautions). But “this is the first year Montclair township and the school district has recognized Juneteenth. There is something to be said about that,” Jackson said.

He noted that there’s still no national recognition of Juneteenth — “there is still not a day on the calendar that pays tribute to the millions of Africans who were held in bondage and murdered to make this country wealthy.”

“Where are the statues, memorial, and museums that bear witness to the crimes committed against Africans in this country? They are few to none, the reason being to protect the mythical past. This country and Montclair still have far to go in recognizing its past,” Jackson said.

The week’s events will begin Monday, June 14, under the theme “Fight for Freedom.” There will be a free virtual lecture on the history of Juneteenth by Stephanie James Harris, executive director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, created to call on New Jersey schools to incorporate African American history into their social studies curriculum. The Zoom meeting ID for virtual events is 880-1194-8011, and the password is JUBILEE.

On Tuesday, under the theme of “Liberation,” the organizations invite the community to host their own family movie nights. They suggest the episode of the BrainPOP educational series “What is Juneteenth and Why Do We Celebrate?” (available at BrainPOP.com), the “Blackish” season 4 episode titled “Juneteenth,” the documentary “The Children’s March,” the web series Black Student Union and the film Glory.

“We want the community to be with their families doing activities together,” Jackson said.

On Wednesday, with the day themed “13th Amendment” (marking the amendment to the Constitution that barred slavery), Montclair State University Associate Dean Leslie Wilson will lead a virtual discussion, “Slavery by Another Name.” It’s “a free Zoom lecture on the role of the Black solder’s fight to end slavery,” Jaskson said.

On Thursday, under the theme of “Black Reconstruction,” organizers are asking residents to support Black-owned businesses in town,” Jackson. said. The Montclair Girl, and Baristanet.com have published lists of Black-owned businesses.

On Friday, under the theme of “Self-Reliance,” Vanguard Theater, in its new home at 180 Bloomfield Ave., will do a free performance and present the film “A Place to Become” at 7 p.m. There will be a panel display on Montclair Black history.  

On Saturday, under the theme of “Family Unity,” celebrations start at 7:30 a.m. with the Montclair Black History 5K run and walk hosted by Fleet Feet Montclair at Edgemont Park. Then, from noon to 5 p.m. there will be a Juneteenth Jubilee celebration at Glenfield Park.

There will be music, dance, poetry, and more for the community to enjoy, Jackson said. Attendees are asked to bring their own chairs or blankets.

Vanguard will repeat its performance and film screening at 2 p.m. Saturday as well.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Elaine Spears' name.