The air was hazy with the smoke of grilling charcoal. Toddlers on tricycles gleefully wheeled down park paths. Parents in sun hats propped their legs on coolers, content to look out at the scene, this gathering of friends and family and neighbors that honors community and history, the present and the past.
“This is a great celebration of the day that slaves were freed, and it’s a joyous occasion for African-Americans to sit and share stories, and break bread, and think about where we came from,” said Randy Brinson Sr., 53. “And we’ve come so far.”
A few thousand people filled Franklin Park in Dorchester for a picnic Saturday, celebrating both community pride and Juneteenth, which recognizes June 19 as the date when the last people legally held as slaves in the United States learned they were free.
It was June 19, 1865, 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, bringing word that President Lincoln had abolished slavery by executive order on January 1, 1863.
Juneteenth has been celebrated in communities nationwide ever since; some groups are working to make it a national day of observance.
The Boston picnic began in 1996, and Governor Deval Patrick attended this event in 2007 to officially mark June 19 a day of observance in Massachusetts.
It’s a chance to meet up with old friends, an excuse to eat steak and ribs, a place to feel safe and surrounded with fellowship.
“Roxbury and Dorchester folks, we’re a unique crew because most of these people out here know each other,” said Jerome Posey, 65.
Posey and nine of his best friends, some of whom go all the way back to Little League baseball in Roxbury, have dubbed themselves The Bunch, complete with matching black polo shirts. They set up their blue tent at 4:30 a.m. to claim their spot.
While much of the day’s importance results from friendship, its history adds some gravity, Posey said.
“I was born in 1948, part of Jim Crow,” Posey said. “It has a meaning to us.”
Though many attendees could recall that era well, the newest generation saw the event as a big party.
“In terms of the history, the kids don’t know,” said Alfreda Harris, one of the event’s organizers. “They’re too young.”
Evelyn Thorpe, another organizer, said, “It’s a celebration of freedom,” she said. “And other ethnic groups in the city have their pride days. . . . The African-American community didn’t have a pride day, so we did it along with Juneteenth.”
‘The African-American community didn’t have a pride day, so we did it along with Juneteenth.’
The crowd was full of “people from all walks of life,” Thorpe said. “People who grew up here and moved back, they come.”
Curtis Branch, 70, came back from San Francisco just for the picnic. Sitting with his former baby-sitter, he wore a hat that read “All Roads Lead to Roxbury.”
“Smiling faces,” he said, gesturing around him. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Cindy Walker, 55, has been organizing high school reunions at the event for years. Graduates of English High School in the 1970s — sometimes as many as 120 — gather under the shade of trees to reconnect, remembering their days in a high school that saw a lot of change.
“We had busing,” she said. “It was turbulent.”
The picnic “feels like a big family reunion,” she said.
The event has gone off without a hitch since it began 18 years ago, Thorpe said. The only hangup, she said, is a classically Boston one: finding a place to park.Claire McNeill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @clairemcneill.