In honor of Juneteenth, members of the Black and Latino caucus and others gathered to raise the Pan-African flag at the Massachusetts State House Wednesday night.
About 50 people watched as the red, green, and black striped flag was raised ahead of Saturday’s official Juneteenth holiday, which celebrates the day slavery ended in Texas on June 19, 1865. (Lawmakers did not say why they raised the Pan-African flag, which represents people of the African diaspora, rather than the Juneteenth flag, which was first raised in Roxbury 20 years ago.)
Despite successfully securing Juneteenth as a state recognized holiday last year, the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus still has a lot of work to do, said State Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat.
“After 156 years we have made significant progress,” Tyler, the chair of the caucus, said as she stood on the State House steps. “But in the year 2021, Black folks are still only free-ish.”
Other public officials, community leaders, and a student shared comments about the history of the holiday, which is also known as Freedom Day. The hour-long ceremony featured the poetry of Langston Hughes and a performance of traditional African drumming.
“As a Black woman from Boston and a mother to a young Black girl, the pursuit of freedom is not just the work I do as a legislator,” Tyler said. “It’s the work of my life.”
Her aunt, Lynnette Sumpter, looked on as the flag was raised on a warm sunny evening.
“It’s history, it’s Black history, it’s my history, it’s my family’s history,” Sumpter, a Roxbury native, said of the holiday. The recognition of that history is “long overdue,” she said.
The event was held on the same day that Congress voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday.
June 19 recognizes the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in the United States — 2 1/2 years after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Since then, June 19, familiarly known as “Juneteenth,” has been celebrated to mark the end of slavery in the United States.
Massachusetts first recognized “Juneteenth Independence Day” last July after Governor Charlie Baker signed a coronavirus spending bill into law including an amendment added by State Rep. Bud L. Williams of Springfield. Juneteenth now joins the list of other official holidays recognized in Massachusetts, such as Independence Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day.
Williams said Wednesday evening that though he’s happy to celebrate the symbolic day, there’s still work to be done to achieve equality.
“Beware, every time we step forward, we get kicked two steps back,” Williams said. “We gotta put the pedal to the metal.”
Other members of the Caucus expressed a similar mix of emotions.
State Rep. Nika Elugardo, another Boston Democrat, said she used to feel “a certain amount of angst” when celebrating Juneteenth because many communities still face oppression.
But she sees hope in the change that led to Wednesday’s flag raising.
“[Structural change is] difficult work and it’s invisible,” Elugardo said in an interview. “It’s like, when a farmer is tilling hard grounds. A city girl like me driving by might not see anything but dirt. But the farmer knows that coming down the pike is a beautiful harvest.”
State Rep. Russell Holmes said he still sees the need to spread awareness of the holiday beyond the African American community.
“I want to . . . bring [Juneteenth] to the level where the conversation is a broader conversation,” Holmes, a Boston Democrat, said in an interview. “[Juneteenth] is not just a conversation between Black people.”