By Jay Turner
The promise of freedom and the power of unity provided a cause for celebration on Saturday as residents of all ages gathered at the Revere Heritage Site to commemorate Juneteenth.
Also known as Freedom Day and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth commemorates the formal ending of slavery in Texas with the arrival of Union troops in Galveston on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Largely unknown for more than a century outside of the African American community, the day gained national attention in 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, and in 2021 it was formally established as a federal holiday. Community-based celebrations, however, date back to 1866, originating with church-centered gatherings in Texas and spreading across the country to include rodeos, street fairs, historical reenactments and public readings.
In Canton, Juneteenth first came into focus a year ago, when the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CDEI) Committee hosted the inaugural celebration on the patio of the Northern Spy restaurant. At this year’s second annual Juneteenth Celebration at the same venue, CDEI Vice Chair Julie Beckham noted that she too had only become familiar with the holiday in recent years but was now involved in organizing the celebration in her hometown. She also proudly displayed the dress she was wearing — a handmade Nigerian garment that she got from CDEI member Naomi Akan and which she described as the “most fabulous” piece of clothing she owns.
“So that is a symbol of not being afraid of the things we don’t know,” Beckham said. “And not being afraid to say to your friend, ‘Can I wear this on Juneteenth to celebrate this wonderful culture, this amazing holiday and this feeling of freedom and unity for all?'”
“I also encourage you all to not be afraid to do something,” added Beckham, “because doing something is a step forward and when you’re surrounded by the great community that you are and especially with this committee, you can ask what works and what doesn’t work, what feels good for you and what feels good for others, and more importantly you can learn.”
Beckham also made a point to acknowledge the efforts of CDEI Chair and event emcee Cynthia Holcombe, who was the architect of the celebration and who Beckham said this year “singlehandedly” put it all together.
Holcombe, in her opening remarks, stressed that the members of CDEI considers themselves lucky to live in a town such as Canton and to have the opportunity and the platform to promote diversity and effect change at the local level.
“We’re pretty much cemented in this town and we want to be here for a while … so these events are important,” Holcombe said. “We want you guys to come out and celebrate with us and show support.”
Holcombe also took the opportunity to share the history of the Juneteenth, as well as background on African-inspired cultural and artistic contributions, such as steel drum music and the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. The information she provided served as a backdrop for the event’s featured performers: steel drummer Jose Panman Costa, who was accompanied by soloist Shantel Sugar, and Dorchester-based SINHA Capoeira, led by Mestre Chuvisquinho.
Audience members danced and cheered throughout both performances, and both CDEI member Akan and new Police Chief Helena Rafferty joined SINHA for their Capoiera demonstration.
In addition to CDEI members and Chief Rafferty, notable guests at Saturday’s celebration included Select Board member Lisa Lopez, Revere & Son Heritage Trust President Victor Del Vecchio, and state Rep. Bill Galvin, who reflected on the dual purposes of Juneteenth in remarks to the crowd.
“Juneteenth is both a celebration and a solemn reminder of our nation’s somber history,” Galvin said. “June 19 allows us as a community and a nation to acknowledge that slavery was an unforgivable crime against humanity and to remember that men and women whose labor and bondage made America a wealthy nation.”
“It is important that we acknowledge these terrible moments in our history,” added Galvin, “so that we can attempt to correct the generations of harm caused to the Black community and finally achieve equity as a society.”
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