Photos courtesy of Thompson & Bender
For Juneteenth, the City of Yonkers debuts a new, permanent art exhibit that honors the legacy of the nation’s first freed slaves.
Juneteenth is right around the corner, Westchester. America’s newest national holiday is being celebrated across the county, and the City of Yonkers is leading the way with the dedication of a new sculpture garden and art installation.
Debuting in June, the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden is an exhibition of five life-size bronze sculptures depicting freed slaves. The sculptures, named “Themba the Boatman,” “I’Satta,” “Bibi,” “Sola,” and “Olumide,” will reside in a half-acre rain garden along the Hudson River esplanade in Yonkers, and the interactive installation will allow guests to view the art from 360 degrees and appreciate the landscaped greenery of the work.
Artist Vinnie Bagwell is the creative force behind the installation. A Westchester native, Bagwell has been creating art for more than 25 years. Her work can be found across the country, with over 20 public art commissions to her name, including sculptures of Frederick Douglas, Ella Fitzgerald, and President Theodore Roosevelt.
“Public art sends a message about the values and priorities of a community,” says Bagwell. “In the spirit of transformative justice for acts against the humanity of black people, I am grateful for those who supported this collective effort. The strongest aspect of the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden coming to fruition is that it begins to address the righting of so many wrongs by giving voice to the previously unheard via accessible art in a public place while connecting the goals of artistic and cultural opportunities to improving educational opportunities and economic development.”
The unveiling will occur a few days prior to Juneteenth, a.k.a. June 19, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. While the day has been observed as a holiday since 1865, it was only in 2021 that it was officially recognized nationwide.
The day is variously thought of as America’s second Independence Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day. While there will be celebrations of black culture and heritage across the country, a particular focus of the holiday is given to history and the day’s significance in the United States.
In Westchester, for instance, Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers was once the seat of the Philipsburg Manor, a colonial estate that at its height covered more than 52,000 acres of Westchester land. The Philipse family engaged in the slave trade and made use of slave labor in building their estate. It’s estimated that more than two dozen African slaves resided at the manor. In 1799, these slaves were released from their bondage as some of the first in the country to be given their freedom.
An unveiling ceremony for the sculpture garden takes place on June 17 at 20 Water Grant Street along the Yonkers waterfront. During the occasion, Mayor of Yonkers Mike Spano and others will deliver remarks about this significant step in commemorating the history of Yonkers.
“Public art has become a hallmark of Yonkers’ diversity and vibrancy,” the mayor said in a statement. “The Rain Garden joins the growing landscape of beautiful expression here. Through Vinnie’s artistry and devotion to their journey, we are paying homage to the lives and sacrifices of our early ancestors and ensuring their voices are heard for future generations.”
Related: Sculptor Vinnie Bagwell at Work