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Juneteenth celebration explores history

Drumbeats were bouncing all over the shady landscape at Vale Cemetery. The sound of the music guided people down the road in the cemetery to the kick-off event of the Juneteenth celebration in Schenectady.

A small crowd of people amassed before the event started. Some people sauntered in holding on to walkers while others rode relaxed in strollers. Everyone gathered at The African American Ancestral Burial Ground to hear about the past injustices bestowed on slaves and the struggles they had to overcome.

Juneteenth has deep roots, because it is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived at Galveston, Texas to spread news about the war ending and the slaves were declared free men. The problem was President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. Exactly how the information was unknown before the troops arrival remains a mystery.

Walter Simpkins assumed the role of Moses Viney throughout the event. It is a fitting role, since without Simpkins people might not have been standing there to hear about tales from the past and what we can learn from them.

During an Underground Railroad conference Simpkins heard about Moses Viney, an escaped salve who came to Schenectady. Viney became chauffeur close friend of Eliphalet Nott, then president of Union College. Also, Viney was buried in what used to be known as the Old Colored Plot.

I remembered in our history we used to be called colored and I decided that something needed to be done about that name, said Simpkins.

In 2005, Simpkins talked to various youths about restoring the burial plot and renaming it was the first priority. The New York State Museum and the New York State Department of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation assisted the youth's efforts to restore the site. The Golub Corporation, owners of Price Choppers, contributed supplies such as trees, seeds and tools to clean it up.

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