Visitors streamed into the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday for a Juneteenth celebration that featured live opera, a recitation of Frederick Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and a panel discussion about how cultural institutions should reckon with black histories.
Attendees reveled in the holiday of black liberation, even as the museum is currently under investigation for possible civil rights violations by state Attorney General Maura Healey. And they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
“Sometimes in times of tragedy, it’s not running away — you run to,” Robert Lewis Jr., an advocate for black and Latino youth and the event’s keynote speaker, said in an interview Wednesday night. “My feeling is that the easiest thing to have done is not to show up.”
The museum, in partnership with The Urban Labs, has hosted an event for Juneteenth for seven years. But this year the holiday comes at a particularly potent moment, just a month after students of color from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy said they had been subjected to racism and close scrutiny during a field trip.
Some attendees said they had the recent incident on their minds, but they were grateful for a space to celebrate with other people of color.
“It’s kind of hard to find spaces for people that look like me in Boston,” said Winnie Rugamba, 23, a graduate student at Brandeis who hails from Rwanda, adding that the event was what she had been looking for in the city. While almost 80 percent of the museum’s visitors annually are white, the Juneteenth event was attended by a diverse crowd.
Celebrations of June 19 mark the day in 1865 that formerly enslaved people in Texas learned they were free.
A handful of people gathered on the west side of the MFA at 6:40 p.m. to protest last month’s incident. One person held a poster that read “Black Minds Matter.”
Generally the crowd was lively and joyful, gathering for a series of performances and for special tours highlighting the work of artists of color. Audience members shouted encouragement as a team of six women began step dancing, the floor shaking beneath their feet.
The museum said attendance by 9:30 p.m. exceeded the total for last year’s event, at more than 5,000 participants, according to preliminary figures. And about 800 people signed up for yearlong free memberships.
Two miles away in Roxbury, the National Center of Afro-American Artists hosted a smaller and more intimate celebration of Juneteenth. The predominantly African-American crowd there perused local artists’ work, danced, sang, ate, and listened to prayers and speeches.
Jumaad A-K. H. Smith, the chairperson of the Boston Juneteenth Committee, has been in charge of organizing the annual festival since its inception. She said organizing at the NCAAA was a “joy, because everybody works from the soul.” Smith proposed this year’s theme — preparation for reparations — because “it’s time. We need to fix some things.”
The NCAAA has a partnership with the MFA, which contributes to the NCAAA’s operating costs and pays the salary of its director, Edmund Barry Gaither. This year, activists successfully pushed for a shuttle to run between the two museums.
Gloretta Baynes, a local artist and leader of an artists-in-residence program, said the shuttle and MFA signs advertising the NCAAA event were the product of a sit-down between the MFA and community artists.
“We’re very pleased that [they] were able to take the suggestions of the artist community,” Baynes said. “It’s important to not split the audience, but to collaborate.”
Another attendee, Curdina Hill, said turnout at the NCAAA’s Juneteenth celebration was much higher than usual, and wondered if the recent incident at the MFA might have encouraged people to come to Roxbury instead.
MFA leadership said it welcomed the opportunity to host Juneteenth in the midst of a citywide conversation about race and cultural centers. (In addition to Healey’s investigation, the museum has also hired former attorney general Scott Harshbarger to conduct an investigation.)
“I can’t think of a more appropriate moment in time,” said Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, in an interview before the event. She said she hoped that the night didn’t become a once-a-year symbol of inclusivity, though.
“That would mean that there’s only one evening where we’re on the hook for getting this right. That would be unfortunate,” she said.
Malia Lazu, founder of The Urban Labs and a co-organizer of Juneteenth, said in an interview earlier this month that the MFA’s Juneteenth grew out of conversations with African-American artists who wanted a greater presence in the museum. In the beginning, she said, the idea of a black holiday celebration there seemed improbable: “No one thought that the MFA was woke,” she said.
But she’s been happy with how the event has grown over the years. “It’s an elite institution. It understands that. That’s why it’s trying to change.”