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Boston-area revelers celebrate Juneteenth in its first year as a national holiday

Bryan Frazier, 5, center, dances with friends and family during the Juneteenth celebration at Franklin Park in Boston, Saturday.
Bryan Frazier, 5, center, dances with friends and family during the Juneteenth celebration at Franklin Park in Boston, Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Rob Bennett and Eric Rainey have been celebrating Juneteenth in Franklin Park for decades, commemorating, with music and barbecue, the day in 1865 that Union troops announced the end of slavery in Texas.

On Saturday, the men, co-founders of the charitable group, “Good Looking Out,” returned to the park to celebrate Juneteenth in its first year as a national holiday.

“Now that we have more recognition, I want everybody to come out here to understand more about each other’s cultures,” said Bennett, who was grilling chicken on a barbecue.

Rainey, a real estate developer, said facilitating a Juneteenth commemoration in the city fills him with gratitude.

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“This is from the heart,” he said.

NaShaya Wornum and her mother  Shernita dance the Electric Slide during the Juneteenth Boston: Black Joy celebration at Carson Beach, Saturday.
NaShaya Wornum and her mother Shernita dance the Electric Slide during the Juneteenth Boston: Black Joy celebration at Carson Beach, Saturday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Revelers in Greater Boston marked this year’s historic Juneteenth on Saturday with joy and resolve to rid society of the racism that has persisted since the US abolished human bondage during the Civil War.

A range of events were organized this year in Boston and beyond, including gatherings in Copley Square and Ronan Park.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Acting Mayor Kim Janey celebrated in Hyde Park at a commemoration sponsored by the West Fairmount Hill Community Group. Elected officials and community leaders attended other events around the region.

Boston Mayor Kim Janey danced to music playing at a Juneteenth celebration in Hyde Park.
Boston Mayor Kim Janey danced to music playing at a Juneteenth celebration in Hyde Park.John Tlumacki

“It’s a celebration, but we ought not to forget that we’re still in a battle for equality and justice,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester.

He cited the ways that slavery, and later Jim Crow laws, deprived Black people of quality education, fair wages, housing opportunities, and their humanity. Policy decisions, Culpepper said, continue to impact the Black community adversely.

“Folks are still discriminated against,” Culpepper said in a phone interview. “Folks still believe in the Confederacy and the Confederacy is for slavery.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.

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The historian Gregory P. Downs has written that enslaved people in Texas were aware of earlier orders to free them when the Union troops showed up, but white slaveholders refused to comply and the government intervened.

On Thursday, President Biden made history by signing legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. The federal government observed the holiday on Friday because June 19 falls on Saturday this year.

In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. Nearly three decades later, Deval Patrick, then governor of Massachusetts, signed a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth.

Last July, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation that made Juneteenth a state holiday, a move that followed national outcry over the police murder of Black Minnesotan George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, said the Black community has been celebrating Juneteenth since its inception. Environmental justice, affordable housing, and equity for Boston Public Schools students are among the local issues that must be addressed, she said, to provide Black residents with the freedom that Juneteenth commemorates.

“It is important to honor how we have celebrated this day for generations. That is by embracing Black joy and Black excellence and all that is good in our community,” Sullivan said in a phone interview. “We are still striving for full freedom and full equality that has been part of the Juneteenth legacy since the very beginning.”

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Alhoussene Kaba waved a flag at the Juneteenth celebration at Copley Square in Boston.
Alhoussene Kaba waved a flag at the Juneteenth celebration at Copley Square in Boston. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Traditionally, community barbecues and block parties have been organized to mark the historic day.

One of the first large Juneteenth events in Boston began in the 1990s when a group of Roxbury residents gathered following the funeral of a mutual friend, according to the city’s website.

In Franklin Park on Saturday, six Black men, all longtime friends and septuagenarians, sat on stone benches and took in the scene.

“Seeing people, that’s the best part,” said Joe Saunders. “People come from all over, and we didn’t have this last year because of COVID, so it’s good.”

Robert Jenkins said the celebration was a family event.

“I’ve been coming here for over 27 years,” he said, but “this day means even more now because it’s finally an official holiday.”

A group of Black sororities and fraternities gathered under tents for celebrations.

“This year, a lot more people are focused on the holiday, and it’s good to celebrate,” said Jasmine Powell, president of the Lambda Iota chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., in Providence. “But ultimately this holiday should remain for Black people to fellowship with each other, and I think this event is good for that.”

The New Democracy Coalition organized an event in Copley Square, where more than 100 people gathered for a showcase of music, oration, dancing, and fashion focused on Black joy.

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Margarida Tavares was in attendance at the Juneteenth celebration at Copley Square.
Margarida Tavares was in attendance at the Juneteenth celebration at Copley Square.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Kevin Peterson, executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, described the commemoration as bittersweet. He called for reparations for Black Bostonians and said boosting home ownership among the city’s Black residents would be an effective way to repay that debt.

“On our faces we’re certainly smiling, but in our hearts, there are tears,” he said.

Stevie Downie, 31, of Raynham, also called for change beyond symbolic gestures that codify Juneteenth as an official holiday.

“We’re fighting for systemic changes, and we’re getting symbolic changes instead,” Downie said. “I am appreciative of it, but there’s still more work to do.”

Dyani Tisdol, 39, of Chelsea, called the recognition of Juneteenth as a state and federal holiday “a start.” She said she hopes that celebrations nationwide will grow in the coming years.

“Things are slowly changing,” Tisdol said. “We can say this is a small victory.”

“This is American history. It’s not just Black history,” she added.

Twins Walter (left) and Winston Mitchell, age 6 from Atlanta, enjoyed ice cream at the Hyde Park celebration.
Twins Walter (left) and Winston Mitchell, age 6 from Atlanta, enjoyed ice cream at the Hyde Park celebration.John Tlumacki

The New Democracy Coalition’s event later moved to Carson Beach in South Boston, the site of a 1975 confrontation between Black demonstrators asserting their rights to visit public places and white counterprotesters.

Aja Jackson, 43, of Roxbury, said she helped plan the Carson Beach portion of the event after being approached on M Street last year by a man who told her and her friends to “go back where we came from.”

“I want everyone to recognize that Juneteenth is here and that all Bostonians are allowed to come here to Carson Beach,” she said.

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Back at Franklin Park, the majorette dance team Area 51 performed.

Jacqui Chandler, a member of the dance team’s staff, said it was special for the dancers to perform on a historic day.

“It is important finally having Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday, because this has been going on for years,” she said.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott. Jack Lyons can be reached at jack.lyons@globe.com.