Since Robert Treat led a band of Puritans to these parts in 1666, Newark has been indispensable to the American experience. Now the 350 years of industrial revolution and racial strife and flowering arts and culture and urban decline, all of it is being celebrated. Newark Celebration 350 chairs Junius Williams and John Schreiber are organizing events coinciding with Black History Month. The pair spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Mary Alice Williams: Mr. Williams, let’s start with you. What does black history and Newark’s celebration have to do with one another?
Junius Williams: Well, there have been many significant African-Americans who have helped shape Newark’s history. All the way from the beginning through 350 years. We have people like Mayor [Ras] Baraka. We have Sarah Vaughn. We have many folks who have helped pave the way for Newark to become the city that it is now.
Mary Alice Williams: In conjunction with Black Lives Matter, I understand that you have senior citizens recounting their stories and recording these stories. What do older people have to teach younger people?
Junius Williams: They understand that if you don’t know your history, you don’t really know where you’re going. So we have to look to our seniors to tell their stories. The NAACP is going to be doing a series of interviews with people in the context of Black Lives Matter so that we can understand just what it was like back then to understand what it is today so that we can project and do better in the future.
Mary Alice Williams: Mr. Schreiber, let’s talk about the 350 celebration. You’ve got so many events I can’t even name them. You’ll have to go to our website to see them. What is the overarching goal of Newark 350?
Schreiber: I think the goal is to prove, not only to Newarkers, citizens who live here, but to the rest of the world that this is an extraordinarily diverse and fascinating and history rich and culture rich city. Junius and I have spent the last several months in the wards, talking to citizens about their own lives and so we have together, we’ve curated over 150 events, many of them produced by Newarkers. So this is an exciting opportunity to have all five wards, not just NJPAC and the Newark Museum and the Prudential Center and the library and those sort of anchors, but have everyday folk produce and narrate the past/present history of the city.
Mary Alice Williams: I think it was Morgan Freeman who said black history is American history. Both of you had to study in order to do your jobs as chairs of this celebration. What was the coolest thing you learned?
Junius Williams: So far, just think about what happened when the first whites came on shore and were met by the Native Americans. I often wonder really what that exchange was all about.
Mary Alice Williams: I guess we’ll find out, right?
Junius Williams: Yes.
Mary Alice Williams: Good. What about you, John?
Schreiber: The coolest thing for me was David Dinkins used to talk about New York as this gorgeous mosaic and that’s the coolest thing for me. I mean, Junius has been in this city for, can I say it?
Junius Williams: Sure.
Schreiber: Fifty years. I’ve been in this city about five years. I don’t know a fraction of what he knows. But discovering how rich the history is, the culture is, the art galleries, the performance groups, the dance companies, all these organizations that are grassroots organizations that are doing amazing things. That’s our opportunity with Newark 350, to kind of turn up the volume on what’s happening here all year round.
Junius Williams: And to look at what’s going on in the wards. One of the things I wanted to do as chairman is to make sure that some of the voices that I hear all the time are reflected and heard. So we’ve got people who have their own heroes and sheroes to be celebrated. Folks that outside of Newark may not know and it may not be important in some people’s minds. But just to let folks express themselves about who they deem important.
Mary Alice Williams: These are going to be recorded so that’s accessible, everybody’s memories are accessible to the rest of us.
Junius Williams: Yes, we’re going to record many of these conversations. Some of them will, in fact, be television programs suitable for public broadcast.
Mary Alice Williams: And some of these events, I understand, cost $3.50 to attend for Newarkers, right?
Schreiber: Well that’s something we did at NJPAC. We created a program called 350 for $3.50. So we picked a whole cross section of events at the arts center and we’re making tickets available to Newarkers, Newarkers, now, very specifically, right, with proper ID at our box office. So the one coming up in February is Disney’s “Fantasia”, Feb. 19.
Mary Alice Williams: Cool. Thank you for being with us, both of you.