Natick Center was lively with music, chatter, and celebration during the town’s first-ever Juneteenth event on Monday, June 19. At the same time, the event never lost sight of the struggles of the past and the need to fight for a more equitable future. In other words, it did justice to the legacy of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans in Texas. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, freed most enslaved people, it could not free those in areas still under Confederate control. Thus, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were not freed until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived to announce their freedom. The holiday has been celebrated since, but began to gain widespread recognition following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. In 2021, President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday—the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was adopted in 1983.
The speakers at Natick Center Cultural District’s Juneteenth celebration emphasized the significance of Juneteenth and of movements for Black rights. They recognized how far society has come since slavery, how far we still have to go, and the necessity of each and every one of us playing our part in the crucial fight for racial justice. For instance, Bishop Frank Kelly, one of the speakers, went off script to proclaim, “It doesn’t start with any of our forefathers, but what it really does, is it starts—it completely starts with us. And it continues with us. Those of us who are different, those of us who have different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, it starts with us today. We gotta have the courage, we gotta have the hope!” This does not mean however, that we should forget our history.
Troy Smith, Natick’s new director of equity, inclusion, and outreach, said that Juneteenth teaches us that justice and freedom were denied for enslaved people. Knowing this, we must not drag our feet in achieving these values, but instead must embrace them and move them forward. Bishop Kelly echoed this sentiment, saying, “We cannot tear down our history. We need to keep that intact so that we can remember, so that we can remember how things were, and so that we can make things better. We are better together!”
The speakers also made sure to incorporate their pride and gratitude for the work of their Black ancestors in fighting the good fight to get them to this moment, and to celebrate the beauty and joy in Black culture. In her speech, Kristen Pope, the first Black woman on Natick’s Select Board, said, “Racism is wrong, but Blackness is not. Blackness is joy. Blackness is resilience. Blackness is strength. Blackness is love. Blackness is brilliance, and Blackness is beautiful!”
The Juneteenth event, in fact, doubled as a celebration of Pope. The community’s excitement and pride about her being elected was palpable. There is “so much joy in being able to say” that Natick has its first Black woman serving on the Select Board, remarked former School Committee member Donna McKenzie. She told the crowd that the community had happily donated to celebrate Pope, who was honored with speeches, signs, and cake. To Pope, she said, “Thank you for giving us an occasion to celebrate.”
The Juneteenth celebration itself featured local businesses, organizations, and music groups, many of which included people of color. Some of the booths present were Sentie’s Kitchen, which serves African barbecue; a unity quilt project for which attendees designed a square of quilt to be stitched together and displayed; and Natick for Black Lives Matter, among many others. There were performances by the Drum Nomads, Slow Boat Home, the Squeezebox Stompers, and Crocodile River Music on the Common during the event.
Later on, the Common Street Spiritual Center screened Black n Black, a film about the relationship between African immigrants and African-Americans created by Natick resident Zadi Zokou. The film has been shown all around the country, so Zokou said that the film being shown at Natick’s first Juneteenth celebration was “a long time coming”.
Natick community members seemed to really enjoy the festivities: people danced, caught up with friends, browsed the booths, soaked in the music, and embraced. Some attendants remarked on how good it was that Natick put in the work to recognize this holiday. They appreciated that the celebration felt significant, respectful, and relevant to history and the current moment; allowed people to express themselves; and showcased Natick’s diversity.
Grinning even before the event officially started, Select Board member Pope offered a wish for Juneteenth celebrations in Natick to continue beyond this year: “I’m thrilled to see our community come out in support and be together in unity, and I want us to continue this. I want us to continue to rally around freedom.”