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Berkshire County NAACP To Mark First Officially Recognized Juneteenth In Mass. Saturday

A black man with a face mask on, a hat, and an NAACP sign kneels in a sun-dappled grassy park surrounded by other masked people
Josh Landes
Berkshire County NAACP Branch President Dennis Powell at a Black Lives Matter event in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in May 2020.

On Saturday, the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP is holding a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to celebrate the first officially recognized Juneteenth in state history. The holiday marking the full emancipation of enslaved African-American people stems from a June 19th proclamation made in Texas in 1865. While Juneteenth isn’t yet an official national holiday, Governor Charlie Baker signed it into state law in July 2020. NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell spoke with WAMC about what the holiday means today, and why the group is choosing the date to distribute over $60,000 in stipends to the county’s Black and brown students.

POWELL: Well, I think it's really quite significant given what America is faced with today, and in respect to still the unjust treatment of Black people. And it's interesting that when the slaves learned of their freedom and started to celebrate, many of them were whipped and even hung for celebrating for dancing and singing above their freedom. And to think that slavery was bad enough, but for people in Texas to be enslaved for two additional years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by the President. So this is really significant. And it really highlights that Frederick Douglass, who talked about the Fourth of July in his famous speech, talked about not being able to celebrate as a Black person. But Juneteenth is really Black people's Fourth of July.

WAMC: So how will the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP be celebrating the first official Juneteenth in Massachusetts this Saturday?

Unfortunately, not knowing where we were going to be with the pandemic, we didn't have a lot of time to plan. We actually thought we were going to be doing something virtually. So this year, we're going to do something, because we think it's important to show some type of recognition- And also to think about, with this freedom, the deaths that are still occurring of young Black men and women and trans women, especially, we thought it was significant to at least have a showing. So what we're going to do is we're actually going to read the actual proclamation that the general, General Granger, read in Galveston, Texas, on June 19th, 1865. And then we're going to have a student read our response, for us by us. And then we're using this celebration to hand out the stipends in partnership with ROPE, the Rite Of Passage for women, Shirley Edgerton’s group. They will be giving out scholarships to students, Black students going to college, and then the NAACP will also be handing out stipends to over 25 students that will be heading off to college in September. And we think this is really important because being free meant you could get an education. So recognizing our students who completed 12 years of schooling, not always under the best conditions as a Black student. We really want to celebrate that. The Women Of Color Giving Circle celebrated it on Saturday with a tremendous crowd. And they gave each graduate from Pittsfield Public Schools a $50 gift, so we partner with them.

Last year, the law in Massachusetts that officially commemorates Juneteenth came in July, just after an incredibly emotional period of American history following the murder of George Floyd. You talked about how Juneteenth, even in its very earliest incarnations, was a combination of suffering and celebration. What are your thoughts on that dynamic, that this official recognition comes after yet another tragedy in the African American community?

Well, that tragedy has brought about a lot of change. What do I say? You know, better late than never. But it's unfortunate that someone had to die in order for this holiday to be recognized. And it's really a holiday for Black people to celebrate. And I'm thankful, and I hope that the federal legislation will make it a holiday rather than just individual states recognized. It needs to be a national holiday.

Dennis, any final notes on the Berkshire County NAACP celebration of Juneteenth this Saturday?

Well, we're going to actually- I thought about opening with “Slavery Chains Done Broke At Last.” It was an actual song that the slaves sang when they got the word. And like I said, for singing and dancing, many of them were either whipped or hung. But it says: “Slave chains done broke at last. Broke it last, broke at last. Slave chains done broke at last. Gonna praise God ‘til I die.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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