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Juneteenth has been celebrated for decades. Here’s why its wider recognition this year is so important.

"Juneteenth represents a promise of equality, rights, and property."

Solwazi Browne-Vargas, 7, of Boston gives his mother a thumbs up after Black legislators raised the Juneteenth flag on Wednesday evening to commemorate the state's first observation of the holiday. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe
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Saturday marks the first time Juneteenth is being celebrated as an official holiday in Massachusetts, and President Joe Biden signed a bill this week making June 19 a federal holiday as well.

The holiday, which marks the day in 1865 enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were informed that they were finally free, roughly 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in Confederate states, has long since been celebrated by Black Americans.

But it was during the social upheaval in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, the new energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests and conversations about race and racism that followed, all during the COVID-19 pandemic, that there’s now wider recognition of Juneteenth.

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“I’ve been celebrating Juneteenth all my life, it’s always been a thing in the Black community,” state Rep. Bud Williams told The Boston Globe, though he noted that it is “a little more magnified now.”

‘A promise of equality, rights, and property’

When asked about how the holiday has evolved and changed over the years, Kabria Baumgartner, a dean’s associate professor of history and Africana studies and associate director of public history at Northeastern University, called celebrations of the holiday “dynamic.”

“If we think about the origins of the celebration — when Union General Gordon Granger’s general order freed all enslaved African Americans in Texas — then really Juneteenth represents a promise of equality, rights, and property,” she said in an email. “African Americans hold steadfast to that.”

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Baumgartner noted that Juneteenth helps to remind all Americans that Black history and U.S. history are entwined.

“Juneteenth is a reminder that African American history is American history, and we should be teaching it honestly and truthfully,” she said. “Any notion that there is a linear progress toward freedom is a fiction. Instead, there have been false starts and setbacks, violence and discrimination, and, occasionally, moments of pure joy. And June 1865 was one of those moments.”

Other celebrations of emancipation

In considering that more people are now recognizing and observing Juneteenth, Baumgartner said she hopes people will want to explore and learn about Black history more. Juneteenth isn’t the only way African Americans have celebrated emancipation, and did so even before the Civil War ended.

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“For instance, African Americans had a long tradition of celebrating emancipation in different regions across the nation before 1865,” she said. “Some Emancipation Day celebrations took place around Jan. 1, in connection with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Decades before that, in cities such as Boston, Aug. 1 was the day of celebration because enslaved Africans in the British West Indies were formally emancipated on Aug. 1, 1834.”

There is an effort by the Massachusetts Legislature to recognize the third Saturday of July as Black Picnic Day or Negro Election Day. A bill establishing recognition for the day was introduced in 2019 but didn’t move beyond committee. It was brought back this year and is currently in committee.

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In Salem, celebration of the Black Picnic continues, though last year’s was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tradition dates back over 280 years on the North Shore, according to The Salem News.

An exhibit at Hamilton Hall in Salem details not just the origins of the holiday but also includes history and information on voting rights for Black people, and voter suppression, the newspaper reported. During the first Black Picnic, and for years afterward, enslaved African Americans gathered and would elect one of their own to represent not just enslaved, but also free, Black people.

‘Merriment and community’

The first time the Black Picnic was mentioned was in the diary of a white lawyer, who described it being held in Salem in 1741, according to Baumgartner in an op-ed for The Panorama. The celebration didn’t garner support from white residents, who in 1768 asked for regulation of the gathering, calling it “a great disorder.”

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But the day was a way for Black people, despite the oppressions of slavery, to come together and celebrate.

“Enslaved and free Blacks celebrated in grand fashion, beating their drums, firing guns, carrying swords, dancing, and shouting,” Baumgartner wrote. “They also elected their own leader. Though this rival Black election was mostly ceremonial, it became an alternative way to exercise civic virtue. King Pompey was one such elected leader. A formerly enslaved man who claimed African royal lineage, he welcomed Blacks from neighboring towns to his property in Lynn, for merriment and community.”

Despite the pandemic, pushes for Juneteenth recognition continue

Last year, despite the ongoing pandemic, which disproportionately affected BIPOC communities, rallies were held in Boston on Juneteenth.

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In calling for recognition of Juneteenth, and asking for it to be made into a paid holiday in Boston last year, At-Large City Councilor Julia Mejia reflected on the past and present.

“This is a time to be reminded of how far we have come, but also how much work we have to do to become truly free,” she said at the time.

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