WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Bill Browne has a funny story to tell you. He’s sitting under a yellow tent on a cloudy Friday afternoon in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“We were learning about Christopher Columbus,”he says, wearing a “What Would Olivia Benson Do” T-shirt while registering voters during a Juneteenth celebration on Public Square here Friday. “My teacher said he discovered America.”
Browne raised his hand and pointed out Columbus couldn’t have discovered America if there were already people here.
His teacher called his mother that night to say he was being disruptive. Browne’s mother pointed out her son was correct.
“That was 50 years ago,” Browne, a member of the NAACP, said, as he sat a few yards from the local Columbus statue.
A growing movement is pushing for it to be removed. Browne said he doesn’t care about the statue, but just wants American history to be taught accurately.
“Juneteenth is an important part of our history,” said organizer Sharee Clark.
“It really should have been celebrated all of these years,” Browne said.
Public Square has been filled with peaceful protests since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
“Today, we just want to celebrate,” she said. “We just want to bring it down a notch.”
Organizers started putting the event together last week. It included a DJ, activities for kids and educational material. The COVID-19 pandemic, added to difficulties. But, they highlighted local Black-owned businesses.
The experience taught Daryl Lewis, of Nanticoke, that there are a lot of resources for an event like this. People donated their talents and time for things like signs to help get it off the ground.
The three organizers each talked about how impressive Wilkes-Barre’s youth has been, organizing several protests over the past few weeks.
Clark said it has been heartwarming to see new people learn about history and speak up about injustices.
As the Wilkes-Barre event was beginning, news broke that members of the U.S. Senate were introducing a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” she said.
The Wilkes-Barre event wasn’t the only celebration in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Twenty miles north, in Scranton, attendees filled a section of the city’s Nay Aug Park for a Juneteenth party.
People played beanbag, jumprope, chatted and hung out. Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” played as attendees were reminded to wear masks and register to vote.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was among the speakers in Scranton. He told the crowd that there wouldn’t be a new bill on the floor if it weren’t for the marching that people were doing across the nation.
In a speech that included quotations from St. Augustine and Martin Luther King, he also said elected leaders in local, county, state and the federal government have to take action to solve injustice.
Leaders must realize how deep the wounds are from the many ways their community was robbed by the system over the years, Casey told the crowd, adding “It is our job, to take action.”
Browne, also a member of the Peace and Justice Center, talked about the importance of taking it to the next step.
“All the protesting, all the marching, all of it, doesn’t mean anything if you don’t vote,” he said.
“Hopefully, we can rise up and challenge the installed system and threaten them with our votes,” Lewis said. “They don’t have much in stake to change.”
Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.