MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A move to have the township sponsor this year’s Juneteenth event, in celebration of the anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States, proved controversial Monday, with members of some organizations suggesting the township wanted to take over the traditionally Black holiday.
Mayor Tim Donohue said the township wanted to make the celebration a major event. He said it deserves recognition, calling it a “holiday of freedom.”
“To me, freedom is a universal concept,” Donohue said. However, after hearing the concerns, Donohue said the township would rethink its position.
Several speakers questioned township plans at the meeting of Township Committee, which was held remotely.
“I’m just questioning why the township is trying to invite us to our own party, so to speak. I just don’t get it,” said Quanette Vasser-McNeal, a former president of the Cape May County chapter of the NAACP.
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Last year, the township saw its first observance of the holiday, organized by the NAACP and other organizations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in the Whitesboro section of the township. At the time, the event was billed as being presented in partnership with the township.
The township would host the event, Donohue said, because that would mean there would be no requirement for a special event permit or liability insurance.
“We want to make it a big event and really start that tradition in Middle Township. We don’t want that to go away,” Donohue said. “We hope that everybody in town will take part in that because it really is a universal principle of freedom.”
Sometimes called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and other names, Juneteenth commemorates the day Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in the re-united United States. This was months after the end of the Civil War and 2½ years after Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order.
Vasser-McNeal, who stepped down as NAACP president earlier this year to run for Township Committee as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Theron “Ike” Gandy, said the NAACP worked with the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, the Progressive Black Initiative of Whitesboro and others to organize last year’s event.
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This year, she said, the township indicated the group would need to fill out an application to use the King Center in Whitesboro, a historically Black section of the township founded in the post-Reconstruction era. She said they are working to secure insurance for the event and asked “why Middle Township is trying to take that from us.”
“We’re not,” Donohue said. He said the township provided staff, food and other support last year and only sought to continue that support in the future. Vasser-McNeal suggested the township sought to own the event, instead of joining in again this year.
“After all, it’s our freedom day,” she said.
“OK, I’m not sure where you’re going with all that,” Donohue responded.
“I think it’s clear,” Vasser-McNeal said.
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Donohue said the township wanted every organization that wants to be involved to take part in the event.
Melissa Moore, vice president of the Progressive Black Initiative, asked what it would look like if the organizations backed out of the event or held one elsewhere.
“I’m not going to answer that. You’re basically threatening me,” Donohue said.
“It’s a matter of standing up for what we think is right,” Moore responded.
She said she did not want the celebration to become divisive.
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“It’s going to cause friction in the community. And we have a whole summer to get ahead of us. And this is how we’re going to begin it. It’s not going to be pretty,” Moore said. “Is it a race issue? Yes, it can be. We’ll keep it real.”
Further complicating matters, a township announcement emailed to the organizations Monday morning listed the date as June 12 rather than June 19. Donohue said the reason was because the 12th is a Saturday, but as another resident pointed out, so is June 19.
Committeeman James Norris said later he put down the wrong date by mistake when he sent an email Monday.
“The mayor tried to cover for me,” he said.
The event will go ahead on June 19, which Donohue said would allow for an additional week of planning.
Donohue thanked the speakers for addressing the township, saying they did not want bad feelings to fester in the community.
“If we have read this completely wrong, I’ll take the hit and say let the NAACP complete the paperwork,” he said. He said the township will be there to offer support. “I don’t want to have a fight over it. I want it to be good. I want people to feel good about it. Let us know what you need from us.”