NEW YORK — At Wagner Playground in the heart of Harlem, parents and curious onlookers lined the fence and watched as children in hunter green shirts zipped up and down the turf. Speakers boomed with popular music, and if your eyes trailed the field you could catch a few lacrosse players and clinicians in a dance-off here and there.
This was the setting of a USA Lacrosse Sankofa Clinic Series clinic in partnership with the Harlem Jets organization — an effort to introduce lacrosse to a new crop of players and share the game with the community at large. What made the day even more special was the date of the occasion: June 19, or Juneteenth as it is more commonly known.
June 19, 1865 marked a momentous occasion with which many Americans may not yet be familiar, but the gravity of the date sinks in more and more each day. Approximately two years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring that the approximately 3 million slaves held in the Confederate states be freed.
For slaves in Texas, freedom was not instantaneous. It took Union soldiers arriving in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 for the enslaved to learn of the end of their servitude, and thus the special day was born.
They celebrated with prayer, food and dancing. On Saturday, we celebrated with lacrosse.
In conjunction with the Sankofa clinic, the Harlem Jets also hosted their first ever Juneteenth Lacrosse Expo, giving their own players and the community at large the opportunity to watch organized lacrosse games. The D.C.-area Prince George’s Pride and Unity Thunder, Philadelphia-based Warhorse Lacrosse Club and Baltimore Terps made the trip into the city to showcase their skills to the community.
With its history of Black excellence and creativity, Harlem was a poetic location for this inaugural event. From the 1910s through the 1930s, Harlem flourished in what was known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” Creative artists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston energized the borough, marking Harlem as the mecca for Black literature and music.
The movement also was closely tied to the civil rights struggle, with its prominent figures playing a large role in the fight for equal rights. Today, Harlem’s largely Black and Brown population is what made hosting both the Sankofa clinic and the Lacrosse Expo on June 19 such a momentous occasion. The home of Black creativity and celebration also became a place that allowed children in the community to explore a new sport and celebrate a joyful day with friends and family.
For Arielle Ramirez, a senior defender for the Hartford women’s lacrosse team who also plays for Puerto Rico’s national team, coaching a Sankofa clinic on Juneteenth was an opportunity to give back to her community and celebrate Black freedom.
“Being a New York native, this is super important to me,” said Ramirez, who starred in lacrosse and track and field at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, N.Y. “To be here on a day like Juneteenth when we’re celebrating our freedom, what better way to do it than being free and playing a sport that we all love.”
The sentiment was echoed by Warhorse Lacrosse Club coach Khalil Lindsey, who first picked up a lacrosse stick at age 14. Though he found success within the sport, his desire to have learned the sport earlier inspired him to coach and spread the game to younger groups.
“They can get an advantage I didn’t have,” said Lindsey, who played college lacrosse at Delaware Valley. “They can learn the things I wasn’t able to learn at 7 or 8. That way, when they’re my age now, they’re way better than I am.”
Isaiah Davis Allen, a defensive midfielder for the Premier Lacrosse League’s Redwoods Lacrosse Club, was part of the clinic’s coaching crew as well. Davis Allen is one of the members of the Black Lacrosse Alliance, a coalition founded by Black professional lacrosse players last summer in response to the national movement in civil rights across the United States. He stressed the importance of giving back to the community, particularly giving opportunities for young people of color to learn the sport and gain opportunities to excel in it.
“Pumped to be out here in Harlem, with it being Juneteenth and seeing tons of kids of color,” said Davis Allen, who started coaching with PG Pride when he was still playing at Maryland. “There’s so much good talent here.”
In between games, Christopher Gaines, a 13-year-old player for the PG Pride’s Boxers Lacrosse Club, spoke about his understanding of Juneteenth and the importance of being in Harlem on Saturday.
“It’s definitely hot,” he said on the 90-degree day. “It’s a good experience for the people out here to see other Black people playing lacrosse, especially on this day. It just feels good.”
His teammate, Miles Shane, also 13, reiterated the importance of showing other players that looked like him that they belonged in the sport and could succeed in it too. “I find it amazing and beautiful,” he said.
A quote inscribed on the backs of the Sankofa clinicians’ shirts — “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” — felt especially poignant. When an underserved community has not much exposure to lacrosse nor the resources to deploy programming, it can sometimes feel left behind. As USA Lacrosse partners with local organizations at the grassroots level, however, Sankofa clinicians from all over the United States ensure that no one is left behind and that every new player walks off the field with a smile knowing he or she truly belongs in the lacrosse community.
On a sunny day in Harlem, food, dancing and lacrosse were the tools for celebrating a historic day in a community known for its joyous and creative exposition. And for Harlem Jets directors Tim Heckman and Alex Coombs, this occasion laid the foundation to do it all again next year.
Tari Kandemiri aka Official Lax Girl is a USA Lacrosse clinician and cohost of the ESPN show “Sound On with Tari and Amari.”