You should know the story by now. In 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and it took over two years for the word to reach the last enslaved people in the US — June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. Although Juneteenth has been celebrated in various fashions since then, it took over 150 years for the day to become a nationally recognized holiday. President Biden signed it into law following a year of racial reckoning in 2021.
It’s a day of celebration that also takes place during Black Music Month, and Boston has put together a variety of ways to mark the occasion. Here are a few of the many events to celebrate the holiday and reflect on what it means in 2023 this weekend.
Saturday, June 17
Although the Boston Public Library will be closed on Monday for the holiday, they have a series of events for Juneteenth leading up to the day. On Friday, an event titled “Celebrate Juneteenth with Little Uprisings,” at the Mattapan branch will discuss racial justice in a workshop for 6 to 11-year-olds in order to help teach about the concepts of empowerment and change-making. There are many other book readings and workshops at different branches throughout the city this weekend.
On Saturday, the Honan-Allston branch will offer a drumming workshop for children ages 4 to 10. Cornell Coley has been teaching drumming for over 25 years, and he says (while keeping a steady beat on drums, I might add), “I think this is an important art form because it brings together a lot of ways people can get stronger inside. The way they can bond with other people. The way they can find peace.” Both workshops mentioned here are free and don’t require registration. Visit the BPL website for a complete list of events.
Sunday, June 18
The Boston Lyric Opera commissioned the operetta "The Wanderer's Tethering," which dives into the experiences of people with both African and Black American roots. Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola and composer Mason Bynes created this work which blends spoken word performance with Negro spirituals and Igbo folkloric music. The program also includes music by composers Jessie Montgomery, Trevor Weston and Florence Price. The performance also features BLO soprano Brianna J. Robinson and Castle of Our Skins musicians. This event will be held at Hibernian Hall and a community reception will follow.
Sunday, June 18
First, a little history. Long before Juneteenth, a group of seven people were enslaved and living in what is now known as the Longfellow House in Cambridge. In 1774, when their enslavers suddenly fled their home, this group had the unexpected opportunity to seize their freedom. Despite the odds, Cuba Vassall, one of the freed slaves, became an activist for Black freedom.
This weekend, the mansion will host Juneteenth celebrations with music and poetry performances as well as presentations from Vassal’s living relatives. Across the street, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy will screen “Descendant,” a documentary about the descendants of the last known ship carrying enslaved people to the U.S.
Sunday, June 18
Before we get into the performance for this evening, it has to be noted that the venue, Groton Hill Music Center, stands out among modern arts complexes in New England. Located in north-central Massachusetts, the center is home to two world-class stages designed with modern acoustic science and the aesthetics of a lantern-lit barn. If that alone isn’t enough of a draw, consider the programming this weekend. New England Conservatory of Music alumni Kevin Harris will present “Roots, Water and Sunlight,” which features recordings of James Baldwin.
As Harris phrases it, “Baldwin is also a part, an extra instrument throughout the piece itself,” intertwined with the musical compositions of the evening. Harris hopes that by including these samples, he can revive some of the themes of change and resistance to change that Baldwin often discussed.
Juneteenth at Boston museums
Monday, June 19
For years now, Boston area museums have offered free admission and special programming on Juneteenth, and many of them are taking the opportunity to highlight Black artists who already have exhibits underway. The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston currently has an exhibit featuring Simone Leigh, whose works focus on the experience of Black women. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is marking their 11th Juneteenth open house, and this year they have a couple of exhibits to pair with the celebration. Most notably“Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” which centers Black potters of the 19th century, many of whom were enslaved. The exhibit pairs these older works with modern responses to them. Admission to the MFA is on a first-come, first-served basis for Massachusetts residents. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is hosting a free day of activities conversations and performances, including poetry from Amanda Shea (a WBUR's 2021 ARTery 25 artist), a screening of the film "A Reckoning in Boston" and music from DJ KNSZWRTH. Across the river in Cambridge, the MIT List Visual Arts Center is also opening its doors on Monday, but this museum is always free! So if you can't make it Monday, be sure to visit at a future date.