From Student Walk-Outs to Juneteenth: Collingswood Community Celebration Rooted in Education, Black Experience


Collingswood hosts its inaugural Juneteenth celebration Saturday, a capstone to educational experiences in the school district that local leaders hope to share with the broader community.

By Matt Skoufalos | June 16, 2023

Collingswood Juneteenth Banner. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

On Saturday, June 17, Collingswood will host its first-ever Juneteenth celebration, a holiday commemorating the release of the last Black Americans from enslavement in Galveston, Texas.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed all enslaved peoples in Confederate states in 1863, word did not reach the westernmost Confederate-controlled territories until 1865, when Union soldiers reached Galveston Bay, and declared the quarter-million slaves there free under proclamation of law.

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans.”

In recent years, Juneteenth celebrations have become mechanisms for doing the work of connecting communities across America with this chapter in national history, which was, for many years, seldom part of mainstream public school education everywhere in the country.

Saturday’s event in Collingswood reflects a collaboration among the borough Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, student and district leaders in the borough public schools, and area businesses.

It follows a week of programming across all Collingswood school grade levels, which included an open discussion among high-school students with guidance counselor LaToya Goodall about the last six months of race relations in the school community.

Collingswood resident Bruce Smith, who chairs the DEI Executive Committee, said it was itself established in response to student walk-outs at Collingswood High School earlier this year.

“The walk-outs were a defining moment that I think forced people, including myself, to question what role did we want to play in improving conditions,” Smith said.

“The expectation is that everybody wants what’s best for the school district and the borough,” he said. “People obviously differ on the method of making things better; people differ on the climate of the school, and the reasons for the climate of the school.

“These are all complicated issues, complicated feelings,” Smith said; “a complicated system that is not solved in simple accusations and denigrations. The point of Juneteenth, and the point of the DEI work, is what can we do to improve conditions for everyone? How do we identify the tension, while also offering support and solutions?”

To Smith’s thinking, the jumping-off point for any sort of community improvement begins with the open concept of reconciliation that has been taking place with students in the borough school district. Beyond that, in the larger neighborhoods of Collingswood, the DEI Committee is applying its efforts to volunteerism, especially in support of Black-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Collingswood High School students staged a walk-out to protest what they described as a climate of bias in the district. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The committee is also hoping to collaborate with the district to create a transitional program for students joining the Collingswood Middle and High Schools from its send-receive districts, Oaklyn and Woodlynne, so they can involve themselves with their peers earlier in their academic careers.

Smith also hopes that such a program would cut back on instances of student discipline, which occur with the greatest frequency during ninth grade, a transitional year between middle and high school.

Conversations with Collingswood students also revealed a need for hiring more teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds. At a community reconciliation meeting in February, Black high-school students spoke about feeling discouraged from forming relationships with the few Black staffers in the building, or bonding with them only for the adults to move on.

Smith said that addressing that shortfall involves not only correcting for diversity in hiring, but also creating a culture within the school in which employees from myriad cultural backgrounds can flourish.

“Everybody’s perception is reality,” Smith said. “People can only speak of how decisions and actions make them feel. There’s teachers and students who will say, ‘This is my experience, and it’s real to me,’ and they both can be true about the same thing.

“One of the key things that I like to do is accept that I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of conversation throughout the district and throughout the community about definitive descriptions and responses on subjects that they really don’t know. We all should be having solutions for all the kids, not just the kids in our spectrum.”

One of the core aims of Juneteenth in Collingswood involves broadening dialogue from the personal experiences of individual people, positive or negative, into discussions about how the whole of Collingswood is affected by questions of inclusivity. Smith believes conversations that envision a more equitable community, rather than focusing on individualized experiences, can help drive the process in a more productive direction.

“We are all reflective of our families, good and bad; we are all reflective of our communities,” he said. “But we’re constantly talking about conflict and not about solutions. That conversation cannot be brought down to the level of personal accusations, denigrating people in public, and using children as weapons.

“I knew every emotion that those kids were saying at the walkout,” Smith said. “You have a visceral reaction to that; it’s post-traumatic stress. I didn’t walk away [asking] who to blame for it; I walked away [asking], what can we do about it?

“How can we support those kids and the teachers?” he said. “It can’t be an either-or choice. Every crisis is an opportunity for growth. That’s the way I view the DEI work; that’s the way I view Juneteenth.”

Facilitator Alexandria Robinson Rogers leads a community engagement session in Collingswood. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

To Smith, the core concept at the center of Juneteenth is celebrating freedom in its myriad individual expressions. The holiday itself is inherently rooted in Black freedom, but to him, that doesn’t mean it’s only to be celebrated in Black households, or that a Juneteenth celebration in a predominantly white community is a performative event.

“I don’t think we’re concerned that this is a cosmetic band-aid,” Smith said. “We celebrate this day of freedom of how long it took the message to get from Washington to Galveston, and the reaction of the slaves who suffered, which was celebratory.

“This idea that a celebration of freedom is performative, when people died to provide you this freedom; when civil rights leaders were assassinated fighting for this freedom, to me, minimizes their impact and their life’s work,” he said.

“A celebration of freedom is a celebration of freedom for everyone,” Smith said. “So it is a celebration of Black freedom, and when you’re celebrating Black freedom, you should be part of it in what freedom means to you.

“Any fight for independence is a fight for equality,” he said. “It’s to stop being less-than. We should always be striving to be more diverse and more inclusive and more equitable.”

To that end, Smith cited French author Victor Hugo’s, who in Les Miserables wrote about addressing the root causes of ignorance rather than blaming the ignorant for what they haven’t learned:

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is guilty in not providing universal free education, and it must answer for the night it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

“Even in this small community, it is in our ability to make better structures and better systems, so we’re not living in the dark,” Smith said. “The work is in the systems that have existed in Collingswood, long before we were here, and long before most of the teachers were here, and long before most of the minority students were here. The conversation to make it better cannot be about the individuals, it has to be about the system.”

The ultimate purpose of a Juneteenth celebration, Smith said, is to spark subsequent discussions reconciling the events of the past with a vision for the future. Addressing the monumental structural problems related to systemic racism and inequality requires work that cannot be quickly and easily accomplished; one generation cannot undo the work of hundreds of others.

“Our focus has to be what can we do here and grow outwards, not what outwards can come in and help us grow,” he said. “Our present beliefs, our present behaviors, are always a result of our past. But we can also, in our present, shape our future. This is the beginning.

“The goal going forward is always to have a more distinct education piece as part of the celebration,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t just be in the school system. People tend to divide this particular town into the district, the borough, and the people. We’re all one community. And if we’re not involved, if the community isn’t everyone involved in all three, then we are divided.”

Kimberly Camp of Galerie Marie in Collingswood. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘If you want to stop hurting people, you’ve got to do the work’

Kimberly Camp of Galerie Marie in Collingswood believes that Juneteenth should offer an opportunity for meaningful community education, the better to connect participants with the roots of the holiday.

“Juneteenth is about African-Americans,” Camp said.

“There have since been discriminatory practices employed on other populations, however the book for segregation and discrimination was written for us.

“There’s so little known about this history as it relates to Black people, and the only way you get that message across is to tell it,” she said.

Camp, a professional artist, arts consultant, and educator who has presided over institutions including the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, has a distinct and informed perspective on the work of confronting social issues through the arts and education.

She believes that any opportunity to deepen understanding of the lasting impact of racism on Black Americans should confront the realities of race as a social construct created to justify enslavement, and not an inherently biological difference.

“If they even got that message across in Juneteenth, I would be tickled as a clam,” Camp said.

Blackness is “optional for white people,” she said; racism underscores the “entirely separate, parallel world” in which the Black experience is lived.

“You can be born, die, buy a car, get a hotel, get a job, do everything in life, and not have to deal with any Black people,” she said. “We don’t have that luxury. So we learn through our lived experience how to manage living in a white world.”

Addressing those disparate experiences is “uncomfortable, hard work,” Camp said.

“People don’t like it, but it’s not to like,” she said. “It’s to address a social ill that is hurting people, and if you want to stop hurting people, you’ve got to do the work.”

Reinforcing the impact of Black culture on America involves broadening understanding of it, Camp said, and to do that requires educational activities that engage with the facts of history. She cited arts and culture exercises as offering a tangible, intellectual bridge between past and present.

Hand-copying historic documents like the U.S. Constitution, as social artist Morgan O’Hara began doing in 2017, can add new significance to the ideas contained within them. Groups like the Mandala Center for Change of Port Townsend, Washington, use theatrical engagement to advance ideas like restorative justice and anti-oppression education in ways that work, Camp said.

“Most Black people know as much about being Black as white people do, because we were sitting next to you in school,” she said. “[We need to]  Use popular media to explain, show, illustrate why what we think has to be shifted.

“It can be done; it works,” Camp said. “It just takes stepping outside the box to think about ways to not consider someone as ‘the other’.”

Collingswood Superintendent Fredrick McDowell addresses a community meeting about conditions in the district. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘We can’t beat people up for what they don’t know’

Although the call for a Juneteenth celebration may have been most significantly made during the student walkouts at Collingswood High School, School Superintendent Fredrick McDowell said the importance of community education around Black history extends beyond the borders of the district campuses.

“The walkouts really helped highlight the importance of why we needed to make sure we were educating students parallel to educating the community, who may not be aware of the significance of Black history in general,” McDowell said.

“We all identified Juneteenth as an opportunity for us to come together as a community and do something in a big way,” he said. “When the borough signed on, all the stars aligned.”

McDowell doesn’t believe that the inaugural Juneteenth event needs to be all things to all people; rather, he is energized that the celebration reflects coordinated involvement among the Collingswood municipal government, public school district, and resident families.

“In a big and very real and tangible way, the borough and the district and the community are partnering for the first time in its history to acknowledge the significance of this event,” he said. “That’s a win in my book.”

The superintendent believes that Saturday’s event is the first step towards “moving forward in authentic community in a more inclusive way.” He is hopeful that, in the weeks and months that follow, Collingswood can have deeper and more meaningful conversations about the collective work to be done in continued community engagement.

“There are folks that had no idea, no understanding of what Juneteenth is, and so we can’t beat people up for what they don’t know,” McDowell said. “We want to be a platform for people to enter without judgment, without guilt.

“In a community like Collingswood, history is history, and the purpose [of the Juneteenth event]is one part unity, one part celebratory, and another part education,” he said.

“Come ready to enjoy yourselves, have an open mind, and see what you see,” McDowell said. “Every individual is going to take away something different and that’s okay.”

For more details on Juneteenth in Collingswood, visit the borough event page.

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