06/15/13 4:52pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Fifth Grader Daniel Arias reads his essay at the Juneteenth Day picnic held in Ludlam Park in Riverside Saturday afternoon.

The theme of the annual essay writing contest for Pulaski Street School fifth graders is remembering our nation’s struggle with slavery and the reason why it took two and a half years for the slaves of Texas to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation to gain their freedom.

The Juneteenth Day celebration is named for the June 19 state holiday which commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas.

The event, now in its 11th year, is sponsored by the East End Voters Coalition and coordinated by retired school teacher Maryanne Harroun. The students, who study the Civil War as part of their American history curriculum, have to follow a particular writing format, with a certain number of words, and write the essay in the first person as a diary entry as if they were a slave. This year, 120 essays were submitted.

Ultimately, Juneteenth Day is a celebration of freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862 but some slaves in the Confederate states didn’t learn about it until June, 1865.

On June 19, 1865 a Union general announced that “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, that all slaves are free.” Ms. Harroun asked the students to describe in their essays their reaction to that news and what it means for them to grow up free.

The essay contest winners are Angelina Casado, 11, Daniel Arias, 10, and Nadia Rebentisch, 11. Ms. Casado ended her essay with this sentiment, “I smile and know I will now grow up free.” The three winners were given a certificate of appreciation and $50 by EEVC co-chairman Robert ‘Bubbie’ Brown and Larry Williams at a picnic held in Ludlam Park in Riverside Saturday afternoon.

The special guest speaker was Riverhead Charter School executive director Raymond Ankrum. In his remarks he said, “In 2013 we have made a lot of progress, but we still have more to do. We need to focus on  how important education is. This holiday is so powerful it deserves the attention of all.”