Riverhead School District

Students share the meaning of Juneteenth through annual essay contest

While Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday last year, students at Pulaski Street Elementary School have been commemorating the day through an essay writing contest for nearly two decades.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The celebration for the holiday comes from the events of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people in Texas, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed slavery.

The essay contest asks for the fifth grade students to write a journal entry as a child slave in 1865 who has just found out they have been liberated.

This year’s three winners — Nolan Bruen, Makayla Bozza Carroll and Fabian Vazquez-Basurito — read their work Friday afternoon and received their awards.

Robert Brown of the East End Voters Coalition helped start the tradition in 2004 after getting the idea during his time at Brookhaven Lab in the late 1990’s when he first originally heard of the holiday.

“I’m just glad to be able to be a conduit for this to get done into this school,” Mr. Brown said.

According to Trevor Hewitt, the teacher coordinator of the Juneteenth Essay writing contest and music teacher at Pulaski, the preparation for the event starts in late March with Mr. Brown stopping by and explaining Juneteenth to the fifth-grade classes.

The teachers are then given packets explaining the essay contest after which they have about a month to put essays together.

This year they have had around 200 submissions, according to Mr. Hewitt, students are even overcoming language barriers to participate in the event.

Robert Brown addresses the students. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

“This year we had a few students who are bilingual students who submitted essays in Spanish and some students who this is the first essay that they’ve ever written in English,” Mr. Hewitt said. 

One of those students made it to the final round of the selection process, he said.

Mr. Brown was one of four judges of the contest this year along with Aramentis Brown, Roxine Hale and James Langhorn.

The winning essays demonstrated a true understanding of the meaning of the holiday, Mr. Brown said.

“What I get out of some of these essays is the fact that you understand and you get it, it resonates in some of the things that you write,” Mr. Brown said to this year’s winners.

Winners were applauded by their fellow students as they read their essays, as well as by their teachers and family members.

Nolan wrote in his entry: “Growing up free was gonna be great, but without someone to guide me, would definitely make me feel lonely. Not all slaves then had someone to go to either so we had decided to team up and walk all over Texas until all of us could find our families.”

Nolan’s grandparents, Kathleen Marie Bruen and Bernard Bruen, were in attendance and said they knew he was a great mathematician, but they were amazed at his writing skills.

“He never ceases to amaze us,” Mr. Bruen said.

The students of Pulaski Street at Friday’s event where the winners were honored. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

Jillian Hatton, Makayla’s teacher, said she was proud of her ability to immerse herself in the assignment.

“She’s able to put herself into the life of what it was like then, so she really did a great job,” Ms. Hatton said.

It wasn’t easy for the judges to choose just three winners from all the submissions they had received, Mr. Brown said to those in attendance.

“I don’t think you realize how difficult it is for the judges to pick three out of all of the wonderful essays,’’ he said. “I wish everybody could get a prize because you really have done an excellent job.”