Roots of Blacks in Peekskill celebrated at Juneteenth flag raising


By Regina Clarkin

Before the Juneteenth flag was raised at City Hall Thursday night, the crowd gathered for the ceremony got a history lesson about the Grand Marshals of the Juneteenth parade which steps off on Saturday at noon from Park Street’s AME Zion Church.

Ninety-three-year-old Frances Berry, world renowned jazz saxophonist Ray Blue and Vera Smith all have deep and strong roots in the Peekskill community as did Haywood Burns who was honored posthumously. His wife, Jennifer, spoke of Burns’ love of Peekskill.

One of the Grand Marshals of the parade, Frances Berry in center with white hat, Councilman Rob Scott behind her, organizer of the city’s Juneteenth celebration Tuesday McDonald and Grand Marshal Ray Blue at far right. Mayor Vivian McKenzie is applauding to the left.

She told how on this day, June 15, in 1940, William Haywood Burns was born in Peekskill.  “It was here that his activism came to life, at age 15 in 1955 trying to integrate the swimming pool.  My late husband travelled widely, working on the constitutions for Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa where he gave his life. He always told others, with great pride, the most beautiful place in the world to him, was his beloved Peekskill and the Hudson River.  Wherever he went that was what he said. Haywood would be smiling and humbled to know that he is being honored here on Juneneenth (freedom day) the celebration of the legal end to slavery and the dream of liberation. He would also be rolling up his sleeves and urging us to do more to end the racialization of our society and to ensure that future generations could live with equality and inclusion,” said Burns.

This is what the headstone at Hillside Cemetery looked like before the Black Diamonds cleaned it. 

She added that she would have to give ‘deep bows’ to the Black Diamonds Academic Success program. The group surprised the Burns family when they went to Hillside Cemetery to see the grave of the lawyer activist and saw it blooming with flowers and a Juneteenth flag.

Black Diamonds Academic Success members with the newly cleaned grave of Haywood Burns.

The day before members of the Black Diamonds Academic Success program paid a visit to the cemetery and cleaned the lichen off the grave and planted flowers.

The crowd of about 100 people listened to three members of the Peekskill City Singers sing the black national anthem, Lift Every Voice after Youth Bureau Executive Director Tuesday McDonald welcomed civic officials and guests.