PITTSFIELD – A chance to come together. A chance to acknowledge history. A chance to honor black culture.
These are some of the things Pittsfield residents look forward to on June 16, a holiday celebrating the liberation of the last enslaved Americans in 1865 after the Civil War.
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation into law making June 16 a federal holiday. Since it falls on a Sunday this year, the holiday is celebrated on Monday. Just a year earlier, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation to make it a state holiday.
Last week, The Berkshire Eagle spoke to people in Pittsfield about their feelings and perspectives on the holiday. While many didn’t know what the celebration was about, they did have views on its importance.
“It’s not only a recognition of the African-American experience, but also a recognition that liberty and justice have triumphed,” said Dawn Durant, a longtime Pittsfield resident.
She said growing up, the city was less diverse.
“The diversity that exists in the city of Pittsfield has never been seen before. So praise God because that’s a good thing,” she said.
Lee Samuel Rose has lived in Pittsfield for 20 years but has lived most of his life in Mississippi. When asked about June 16, Rose was unaware of the holiday but took the opportunity to talk about how racism and hatred affected him during those years.
Growing up, Rose said he endured prejudice ranging from dirty looks in the street to outright insults. Since many wanted him to put up with this bias in silence, learning to stand up for himself was a crucial part of his life.
“They don’t want you to speak for yourself,” Rose said. “It’s almost like a courtroom. you have nothing to say You can’t speak, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Your lawyer has to do all the talking. That was pretty much what I had when I came up.”
Even now, Rose finds it difficult to talk about his experiences. There are things he just prefers to forget.
Rose said he doesn’t understand the mindset of hate many people work with and wants to see people come together.
“We can’t judge a person by the color of their skin,” Rose said. “We must judge a man by his character. That’s how we judge a person. But I don’t see that. There are too many people who want to keep racism going more than get rid of it.”
Jon Kane, a Pittsfield resident, said he appreciates that the city is organizing more activities to promote diversity and togetherness. He was interviewed with artist Brittiny Warner, who was working on a street art installation by Stephanie Wilson, the second African American woman to go into space and a graduate of Taconic High School in Pittsfield.
“I think doing things like that is way better than doing things that are in a positive way and not just like, ‘Oh, let’s just rebuild like a street and stuff,'” Kane said. “[The city is] Doing things that can bring people together and make things a little more civil.”
Kaylani Wells, 9, said the June 16 holiday is important because it invites people to acknowledge the history behind it.
“I think it’s important because if you don’t remember the story, it will be forgotten,” she said. “I think it will have a big impact on Earth when history is forgotten.”
Henry Rose said more recognition was needed for the holiday. Although Rose won an American History Medal in high school, he said he hadn’t heard from Juneteenth until about 10 years ago.
“We have deficiencies in our public education about this important holiday,” Rose said.
For some in the community, however, it’s more than just a celebration. For Dawn Durant, it’s a chance to keep fighting for change.
“It’s not about looking back, it’s about moving forward… we want June 16th to be not just a celebration, but a kind of movement where we can say, ‘This next generation can take that and live with it,’” Durant said.