By Louise Witt
Still dressed in the dark blue uniform of the Union Army, which he wore during a Civil War re-enactment a few hours earlier on Saturday, Pastor Sidney Williams of Morristown’s Bethel AME Church opened a forum on race at the United Methodist Church by encouraging the community to use our shared past to create a better future.
“Most of our friends there probably voted for Trump,” said the minister to a few dozen fellow pastors, educators and community leaders.
“And yet they love the idea of the Union and fighting on the side of the Union. But they make no connection with what we will be discussing here. So, I say, wouldn’t it be awesome, as we go through this journey together, that we celebrate this idea of liberty together and hear each other’s voices.”
As part of Bethel’s year’s-long 175th anniversary celebration, the church joined other local churches to commemorate the town’s annual Juneteenth Celebration.
On June 19, 1865, the last slaves in the U.S., in east Texas, finally heard that the Emancipation Proclamation gave them their freedom. This day is recognized as a holiday or a day of observance in many states and communities.
In Morristown, Juneteenth activities began with a Civil War re-enactment at Historic Speedwell that included African-American soldiers.
In the afternoon, the focus shifted to the Morristown Green, where actor Fred Morsell, playing Frederick Douglass, recited a speech by the former slave and famed orator.
Douglass spoke in Morristown on June 9, 1865, a few days before “Juneteenth.” Newspaper accounts of that day were perfunctory, so historians only can guess about what he said.
Morsell chose a speech Douglass gave in New York shortly before his Morristown visit, extolling the virtues of Abraham Lincoln, assassinated only weeks earlier.
Kim and Reggie Harris, a folk duo, sang “freedom” songs and African American spirituals. And then Honest Abe and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, portrayed by Robert F. Costello and Cheryl A. Mustachio, addressed a small but attentive audience on the sunny, warm Green.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:
Speaking only yards from a statue of Gen. George Washington, “Lincoln” acknowledged the first president as his hero. And in the shadow of a towering monument to Morristown’s Civil War dead, he recited the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln / Costello also shared a curious historical tidbit: The New Jersey Legislature averted secession from the Union by a mere five votes.
‘WE ARE ALL PART OF THE HUMAN RACE’
Afterwards, the Methodist Church hosted the workshop on race. And in the evening, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer hosted a free soul food fest, with fried chicken, music by church Elder Terence Kitchings and a documentary, Environmental Racism, under a tent on the church lawn.
Senior Pastor Brandon Cho of the Methodist Church said this year’s Juneteeth celebration and Bethel’s anniversary gave his church an opportunity to work with other churches on issues affecting Morristown, such as race, social and economic justice and immigration.
(There are historical connections, too: The Methodist Church gave Bethel its first church building in 1843. The Presbyterians gave Bethel funds for its new congregation, many of whom had belonged to the Presbyterian church.)
“It was a great spark to take a fresh look at what is really going on in our national conversation, our national discourse, ” Cho said.
“This particular historical celebration became a magnet for bringing all these issues together, so we can work together to engage in deeper ways and have greater sense of community, despite our differences.”
As part of its anniversary celebration, Bethel AME organized the workshop, Journey to the Beloved Community: A Discussion on Race.
Community members were invited to share ideas on how to address racism and other forms of discrimination, and encouraged to bring them back to their churches, neighborhoods and classrooms.
The Rev. W. Douglas Banks, lead pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Morristown, said he wanted to participate to learn how communities can build upon individual relationships, rather than on demographic data.
He is especially interested in how this approach could improve local policing practices and the criminal justice system.
“We have more in common than we have differences,” Banks said. “We are all part of human race.”
Banks said participants at his table suggested more educational requirements for police officers, so they have a better understanding of the places they serve and the best approaches to implement. Other tables tackled how people can speak out against discrimination, racism, sexism and bigotry in their daily lives.
Lillie Edwards, a retired African-American history professor at Drew University, encouraged participants to put their ideas to use and come back in a year to discuss their progress.
“You can report and say this is the measure I took, this is the action I took for change,” Edwards said. “One step at a time, one program at a time, one person at a time.”
At next year’s Juneteenth celebration, Williams wants to see African Americans represented in Morristown’s history at Historic Speedwell.
Many area residents do not know African-Americans have lived in Morristown since before the American Revolution, the pastor said. Slaves fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
“So people will realize that we didn’t just show up,” he said. “We’ve been here, and we’re fighting and we’re kneeling and we’re praying, and we’re singing and we’re hoping that one day this really will be a country where everyone can experience liberty.”
At some point, Williams wants the town to add another statue to broaden the town’s historic perspective.
“Here’s my hope and here’s my prayer: While we have many statues all throughout Morristown, maybe one day there will be a statue of Frederick Douglass on the Green.”