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‘Something we can hold onto’: Reflections on Juneteenth

Adebukola Ajao, 26, is one of the founders of the activist group "We are the Ones." Ajao is pushing for Boston to declare Juneteenth a paid city holiday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The observance of Juneteenth this year will be distinct from decades of the celebration in Boston.

The cookout in Franklin Park that typically draws thousands of people probably won’t be the same, with some families staying home because of the coronavirus. Many of the day’s cultural events, like the program at the National Center of Afro-American Artists, have been moved online. And along with joyful festivities, there will be the mourning of the Black men and women who have been killed by police this year, as well as ongoing protests in the streets of Boston.

To some organizers, all of that makes Friday’s holiday even more significant.


“To me, it’s something we can hold onto,” said Jumaada A-K. Henry Smith, chairwoman of the Boston Juneteenth Committee. “It’s times like this when you can talk about the things that are difficult to talk about while at the same time have a little fun.”

Juneteenth celebrates the day in 1865 when the US Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to declare that all enslaved people there were free, and, crucially, that the Army would enforce that freedom. Originally a local holiday in Texas, the day has become a commemoration of the end of slavery and a national independence day for Black Americans.

“Essentially, you wanted a holiday that somehow spoke totally to a Black aspiration or Black history,” said Byron Rushing, former state representative and president of the Roxbury Historical Society.

Massachusetts is one of 47 states that observe the day, although it’s not a federal holiday and in many places (including here), not a paid day off. A number of companies declared Juneteenth a paid holiday this year, including Twitter, Target, and Spotify.

“Now, of course, white people are in 110 percent guilt, so every white person in America is going to celebrate it,” Rushing joked. “You’d have to be in a white militia not to celebrate it.”


Following George Floyd’s death in policy custody, as the coronavirus continues to ravage Black and brown communities, Bostonians reflected on the significance of Juneteenth — part family reunion, part art festival, part history lesson — in 2020.

We ‘extended that mural for 20 years'

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, a visual artist based in Roxbury, first began celebrating Juneteenth in 1982. Not many people had heard about the holiday in Boston back then, he said, so he and another artist decided to host an exhibit at his home in honor of the day.

It was a raging success.

Every celebration began with a libation poured out to honor the ancestors, Jones-Henderson said. What followed was an intellectual jubilee: Musicians played, poets recited, historians and community members shared, playwrights performed. More than 300 people passed through his home, the historic Edward Everett Hale House in Roxbury, each year, Jones-Henderson said.

“It was such a nourishing day,” he said. In addition to spiritual nourishment, neighbors and friends piled into his kitchen, steaming and baking and roasting delicacies from morning until night.

“We had food from every corner of the world,” he said.

Early on, the group took over the wooden panels on a row of boarded-up brownstones in Kittredge Square. They collectively created a Juneteenth mural, a bright commemoration of the holiday in the center of the neighborhood.


“We refurbished and extended that mural for 20 years,” Jones-Henderson said. He last hosted the event in 2002. For him, Juneteenth is a day to revel in knowledge and Black creativity.

“It was about extending to the larger community the history of African-Americans in this country,” he said.

Adebukola Ajao, 26, is one of the founders of the activist group "We are the Ones." Ajao is pushing for Boston to declare Juneteenth a paid city holiday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

‘Every little kid should know'

Adebukola Ajao, 26 and born in Roxbury, never learned about Juneteenth in school.

Instead, Ajao learned from the people around her — about Juneteenth’s origins in Texas, as well as the history of local resistance in Boston. Those stories changed the way she thought about her past.

“I’m a revisionist thinker. I like to think about history in the eyes of my own people,” said Ajao, an educator and cofounder of the activist coalition “We Are the Ones.”

In the past, she celebrated the day online, trying to spread awareness that it even existed. Now her group is behind a petition urging the Boston to recognize Juneteenth as a paid city holiday, part of a national movement to do so.

It should be on the official calendar, Ajao said, because holidays are a way of teaching young people about their own history.

“Even a little 5-year-old probably knows the basic reason why we have Fourth of July off,” she said. “Every little kid should know the reason behind Juneteenth.”

Ronald Riggs and his son, Avery Riggs, pose for a portrait in front of their home on June 18, 2020. The pair has gone to the Franklin Park Juneteenth celebration for more than a decade. Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

‘A family get-together'

Ron Riggs, president of the Boston chapter of the historically black Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, first attended Juneteenth in Franklin Park more than a decade ago. Each year, thousands of people gather on the third weekend in June for food, music, face-painting, and games. It’s a Juneteenth tradition that grew out of Roxbury Homecoming, a reunion for people who had moved out of the neighborhood.


“When I think of the Juneteenth celebration, I think of it more as a family get-together,” said Riggs, who is 53. “You’ll see folks that you went to middle school with, that you went to high school with, that you went to college with. They’re all there.”

Members of his fraternity often gather at the Boston festival, catching up and trading ideas for the year ahead. Each year, the Riggs family arrives early in the day to set up the grill; relatives flow in from out of town to cook, eat, and spend time together.

“It’s something I look forward to every year,” said Riggs’s son Avery, who is 24.

This year, the Riggses will skip the park because of the coronavirus and social-distancing requirements. But Avery, a law student at Suffolk University, said that instead he planned to attend some of the protests that have been planned for this weekend.

“We may not be cooking out, but we’ll be marching,” he said. “There’s another way to have that community feel.”

Jumaada A-K. Henry Smith is the chairwoman of the Boston Juneteenth Committee. She is photographed outside the National Center of Afro-American Artists, near the "Eternal Presence, 1987" sculpture, by artist John Wilson.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

‘You have to face things to fix them’

Jumaada A-K. Henry Smith first learned about Juneteenth when she was working for the federal government in Texas and a white man at her office muttered “Juneteenth” at her as she walked by. It was the 1960s, and having grown up in Boston, she didn’t know the term. After a friend explained it to her, she realized that the man had been heckling her.


Now she is the chairwoman of the Boston Juneteenth Committee, a group of volunteers that organizes the annual program at the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury.

“While we honor the jubilant part and the celebration part, we’re more into the reverence part of it,” she said.

The museum’s Juneteenth event incorporates artwork, music, poetry, food, speakers, and historical re-enactors from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first all-Black regiment assembled in the North during the Civil War. This year, congresswoman Ayanna Pressley will speak at the online event.

Each year for the past 10 years, Smith has read the Emancipation Proclamation to those gathered at the museum. She knows the text well, but some sentences still sting.

“It says things that make me realize that we’re not following these rules,” Smith said. “It says that you should allow people to make reasonable wages and allow people to go to work, but we don’t. We discriminate.”

Smith said high rates of incarceration among Black men and women also reveal that this country has not truly achieved emancipation. But, she said, that’s why she reads the same, still-aspirational words aloud each year, teaching them to the next generation and urging them into reality.

“You have to face things to fix them,” she said. “Some of us need to know. We need to remember.”