For more than a century it was a Texan holiday, then a Southern holiday, celebrated with music, barbecues, and family reunions to commemorate the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger of the Union Army told formerly enslaved people in Galveston they were free.
A year after the national reckoning triggered by the murder of George Floyd, though, Juneteenth — which has gradually gained a foothold in New England — will be celebrated for the first time as an official state holiday, with commemorations scheduled in cities and towns across the Commonwealth.
Juneteenth is now as much a holiday under Massachusetts law as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. Public workers and schools will automatically get the day off when it falls on a weekday. (It’s on Saturday this year.) The new designation builds on a 2007 proclamation by former governor Deval Patrick, which set Juneteenth aside for recognizing “the significant contributions individuals of African descent have made to the Commonwealth and to the United States.”
“I’ve been celebrating Juneteenth all my life, it’s always been a thing in the Black community,” said state Representative Bud Williams, a Democrat from Springfield, who cosponsored the amendment to make Juneteenth a holiday. But with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, “it’s a little more magnified now.”
Some cities and towns, like Bridgewater, will mark the occasion by holding their first Juneteenth celebrations in 2021.
“It just became a conversation of, ‘Why can’t Bridgewater have a Juneteenth?’” said Jenise Means, who cochairs the committee planning the event. She hopes the festivities will “open it up for people to see our culture, see our people, to learn a bit of the history.”
Bridgewater’s Juneteenth observance will feature three historians from Bridgewater State University, who will talk about the history of slavery in America and describe how a house in Bridgewater served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, Means said. There will also be performances by a choir and an African drumming group.
“It’s our first time, so it probably won’t be as grand as some other towns or cities, but we’re just getting our feet in the water,” she said.
If Bridgewater’s festivities don’t qualify as “grand,” Amherst’s might. The town will celebrate Juneteenth for the twelfth time this year, with four major events held over the course of the day. Two ceremonies in the morning will honor the town’s Civil War veterans — some of whom were Black soldiers who brought the message of emancipation to Texas — while two functions in the afternoon will offer a festival-like atmosphere, including art and food produced by members of the local Black community.
Amilcar Shabazz helped organize Amherst’s first Juneteenth celebration in 2010, and reached out to his state legislator, Representative Mindy Domb of Amherst, to advocate for its designation as an official holiday. The native Texan and Africana studies professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst said the state’s official recognition of the holiday is an opportunity for people to learn about the end of slavery “and the movement toward a more perfect union.”
Worcester, like Amherst, has celebrated Juneteenth for more than a decade, but this was the first year the city officially participated, by raising the commemorative Juneteenth flag on June 12 to kick off the festivities. Because of the pandemic, organizers limited the number of attendees, though a livestream was available.
Boston will celebrate Juneteenth with a range of events; the Museum of Fine Arts will offer free admission and display the work of Black artists; Mass Action Against Police Brutality, a campaign working to reshape law enforcement practices, will hold a “Funk the Police” demonstration in Ronan Park, showcasing music and poetry geared toward racial justice. Admission is free, but the event seeks to raise money for families from Massachusetts who have had violent encounters with police, so they can travel to Washington for a protest against police brutality later this summer.
The New Democracy Coalition will hold a “Black Joy” rally in Copley Square to teach participants about the importance of Juneteenth for all Americans. Roxbury Homecoming, a gathering in Franklin Park that has been melded with Juneteenth festivities over the years, will not be held this year, though a new event called “One Night in Boston” will take place on June 18 in Nubian Square.
Lynn will observe the holiday with its fifth annual Juneteenth celebrations, including a flag raising on June 15 and a festival on June 19. Both events are sponsored by the North Shore Juneteenth Association, which advocates for racial justice and sponsors events year-round.
It was through the work of the Juneteenth Association that state Senator Brendan Crighton of Lynn learned about the Juneteenth tradition. With the encouragement of his constituents, Crighton joined Williams to cosponsor the amendment making Juneteenth a legal holiday in Massachusetts.
“Our hope when we passed this into law,” Crighton said, ”was to celebrate this holiday in a more robust way.”
Domb, of Amherst, was one of the amendment’s other cosponsors. She also credited the advocacy of Shabazz and other constituents with motivating lawmakers to make Juneteenth official.
Because of the legislation, Domb said, Juneteenth “isn’t just communities celebrating, hoping for it to be a holiday.”
Domb said she hopes that next year, when the pandemic is further out of sight, the Legislature can take the lead in celebrating Juneteenth, and set an example for communities through the state.
Chelmsford will hold a Juneteenth celebration for the first time this year, with the hope that it can flower into an annual tradition, said Latosha Dixon, vice chair of the town’s Diversity, Racial Equity and Inclusion Committee. The festivities will include an exposition of Black-owned businesses and an address by the president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter.
“I think it’s one of those things that’s going to catch on,” she said. “The more people that learn about Juneteenth, the more people are going to want to celebrate it.”