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Hundreds gather in Salem to celebrate the significance of Negro Election Day

Bernard McClamy Jr. dresses up as King Pompey at the Negro Election Day Parade in Salem. “I’m King Pompey, and I'm of royal blood,” shouted McClamy, professing how Pompey used his heritage to establish the first Negro Election.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

SALEM — “I’m King Pompey, and I’m of royal blood,” shouted Bernard McClamy as he strode down the streets of Salem Saturday, clad in a black top hat and violet coattails. “Back in 1741, I started the first Negro Election Day.”

McClamy was flanked by a long line of Jeeps, fire trucks, police officers, and marchers in a parade organized by Salem United to commemorate Negro Election Day — which may become a state holiday after approval by the Legislature last week, where it now awaits the signature of Governor Charlie Baker to be enacted into law.

“Black Election Day is one of the oldest Black celebrations in North America, predating Juneteenth and even the founding of the United States,” said Kabria Baumgartner, a professor of history and Africana Studies at Northeastern University.

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At the festivities, enslaved individuals typically elected a leader — sometimes referred to as a king or governor — to represent their community, liaise with leaders of the Colony, and serve as a mediator between slaves and slaveowners. The celebration, which lasted from a day to a week, also typically included drumming, dancing, and feasting, said Baumgartner.

The first recorded reference to Negro Election Day in Essex County was in 1741 — and African Americans in the area have celebrated ever since, she said. For much of that history, the celebration has been held in Salem Willows Park on the third weekend in July.

Members of the Hector-Cromwell family have been gathering on this day for more than 125 years, always in the same spot in Salem. They arrive before dawn to start their smoker and pitch their tents, and they stay until dusk, sharing food with family, friends, and even some strangers.

Alicia Williams, 50, has never skipped a summer; her cousin, Holly Langley, 58, has missed only one — after which she “cried and cried,” and she swore she’d never skip again. Her son is so dedicated to the event that he drove there from a dialysis treatment.

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“For our grandparents, it was more about the slavery, being free, the Baptist Church,” Langley said. “For us, it’s about family.”

Kimberlee Cromwell stands next to a photo of grandparents and great grandparents at a family reunion on Negro Election Day in Salem Willows Park. The Cromwell-Hectors have come together in this spot for over a century. “People come and they didn’t know they were related,” said Cromwell.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

On Saturday, there were more than 75 members of the Hector-Cromwell family in Salem, spanning four generations — from 4-month babies to grandmothers in their 80s. A few had traveled from as far as New York, Virginia, and Missouri.

After the parade, members of Salem United — a nonprofit in Salem devoted to promoting the history of Negro Election Day — hosted a slate of speakers and entertainment.

Speakers included McClamy, who portrayed King Pompey in the parade; Rachael Rollins, the US attorney for Massachusetts; Andrea Campbell, a former city councilor in Boston and candidate for attorney general; Tanisha Sullivan, the head of the Boston NAACP, who’s currently running for secretary of state; and Jared Nicholson, the mayor of Lynn.

McClamy spoke about the importance of portraying Pompey, who was born in West Africa before he was captured and sold into slavery in Lynn, where he became the community’s first elected leader — or “king.”

“It was my honor to portray such a prominent man,” McClamy said. “I got to spread the knowledge that I didn’t know.”

Campbell echoed his sentiment, saying “it is a tragedy that our children are not learning this in our schools.”

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“It is not just Black history. It is American history,” she said. “We want this history to be known, for legislation like this to continue to be passed and for our history to be celebrated every day.”

Doreen Wade, the founder and president of Salem United, has been organizing Negro Election Day in Salem since 2014, which has included the parade since 2016.

Salem United didn’t host the event in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, the celebration has been continuous since the 1700s.

“There has never been a lull,” said Wade “People have always come here, even during COVID.”

Across the centuries, the event has been known by numerous names.

“From 1741 to 1920, it was always called Negro Election Day,” Wade said. “As different people started hosting the event, they changed it to whatever they were.”

Churches called it the Sunday Church Picnic.

For families like the Hector-Cromwells, the day has always been called Black Picnic. Wade objects to that term, which she argues has racist roots related to lynching and minimizes the significance of the civic celebration.

As the name changed, “the history got lost,” Wade said. That’s why she prefers to call the celebration by the historic name — Negro Election Day — in her efforts to educate others about its history.

Doreen Wade, the founder and president of Salem United, leads chants from her Jeep to at a parade commemorating Negro Election Day.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

On top of her work to organize the annual celebration in Salem and to advocate for the legislation, she said she is working with school superintendents on the North Shore and in Cambridge to incorporate the history into the curricula.

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“I realized that people were coming here, year after year, and they had no idea why they were coming,” she said. “I want people to know to respect this day.”

That’s why the theme of the event on Saturday was “Black History Matters.”

For Wade, that sentiment is summed up in the slogan that she shouted into a megaphone throughout the parade and sported on her shirt: “We are America’s Black history, and we will not be hidden.”


Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.