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“Empowerment and positive healing can begin by recognizing the past:” Berkshire County celebrates Juneteenth

Josh Landes

This weekend, events celebrating Monday’s Juneteenth holiday are taking place across Berkshire County.

The day celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, made official at the end of the Civil War in 1865 with a proclamation read aloud in Galveston, Texas by Union General Gordon Granger.

“Well, it's exciting, right?" said AJ Enchill. "It's recognizing a truth that our country has had such a difficult history, acknowledging our past. And in 2021, when President Biden sign this into law, it really established that this holiday, which has been celebrated underground, pun intended, for quite some time, to now be recognized for all that it means for the Black community, but also abolitionists and activists who have been fighting for years in this country, not only for our freedom and self-determination, but that it recognizes the empowerment and the positive healing that can begin by recognizing the past.”

Enchill is the founder and President of the Berkshire Black Economic Council. The group, launched in 2021, works to nurture Black businesses in the county. A BBEC event Saturday will kick off Juneteenth weekend.

“We have the ‘I Am Afro’ street fair that will be right outside of the First Congregational Church in North Adams," said Enchill. "They are our partners on this project, and we're excited to have a street fair in the North Adams community.”

It begins at 11 and runs into the evening.

“In the name of economic justice, we're celebrating our merch vendors, we're bringing out food trucks, we're going to have a stage for live performances, there'll be lawn games and a beer garden," Enchill continued. "And it's just a day to get together and have a community fun-filled day. And at around seven o'clock, we'll then have a live performance featuring Jasmine Janai and Raiche. Raiche is our local legend from Pittsfield, and she hit the Billboard Top 100 With 'Money Pies,' and so we're glad to host her at MASS MoCA.”

Enchill hopes Berkshire County residents will use the commemoration to focus on local leaders of the past and present.

“The Berkshires in particular has had a number of Black icons, dating back to Samuel Harrison, Elizabeth Freeman, Dr. W. EB DuBois," he told WAMC. "And while those are such iconic figures who share a meaningful history, given their contributions, we still have icons here, like President [Dennis] Powell of the NAACP, Shirley Edgerton of [Rites of Passage and Empowerment], Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, who's done the African American History Trail, and there are a number of others who are working day in and day out to make this community a better place.”

For its part, the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP is throwing a Juneteenth party in Pittsfield on Sunday.

“We are kicking off Juneteenth with a mini parade starting at Persip Park on the corner of North and Columbus, marching down Columbus Avenue into [Durant] Park, and that's going to kick off the Juneteenth Celebration in the park, which will run from 12 to six in the evening," said the aforementioned President Dennis Powell. "The parade will consist of Youth Alive, along with, we're going to honor the Taconic [High School] boys basketball team as the 2023 state champions. So, they will be marching in the parade.”

The event will also honor the life of Emma Kennedy, originally intended to be its grand marshal, who died earlier this month.

“She was just this matriarch," said Powell. "We’re celebrating her because she reached 100 years old. She was a remarkable woman, school teacher, advocate for children. Just one of our key matriarchs of the West Side Community.”

After the march, Durant Park will be filled with food trucks, vendors, and music all afternoon.

“At one o'clock the opening ceremony we're going to do the proclamation for Juneteenth, which will really kick off and highlight everything, and then we'll have a poem written by a young poet about Juneteenth," Powell told WAMC. "And then at 1:30, we start all our performance with a piano solo, spoken word, hip hop street dancers, dance company, and then live music from Sample the Cat. And at 4, then we will be presenting the student scholarships, because that's one of the main things that we fundraise for for our Freedom Fund. And that is to support youth that identify as Black or African American that has graduated from high school and are going to attend college. We'll be giving out close to $50,000 in stipends on Sunday at the Juneteenth Celebration.”

The theme of the day is equity, which is reflected in the structure of the event itself.

“If you are a vendor of color, then you pay a $25 vendor fee," the NAACP president explained. "And if you are not of color, you pay a $75 vendor fee. And the whole theme is about trying to create equity within our community.”

Powell, who describes Juneteenth as the true Black Independence Day, reflected on the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the African American community in Berkshire County.

“Well, we still have a lot of work," he told WAMC. "We have a lot of, as much work, I think, here in the Berkshires as we do in our country. Because, again, people say one thing and do something completely different. We've made some progress. But again, we have a long, long way to go. Luckily, Greylock [Federal Credit Union] as has really stepped up as a financial institution and really put in some concrete programs to help people afford to purchase homes and whatnot. And they're doing a lot of training on banking and homeownership. So, there are some good, good programs working in our community. But like I said, we still have a long way to go.”

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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