Juneteenth officially ‘called into being’: Amherst celebrates a ‘rich, but extremely difficult’ history

  • The Incredible Jonathan “Ice-Bird” Nelson transforms a pair of doves into teddy bears for a mesmerized audience of children during a magic trick at the Juneteenth Community Jubilee in the Amherst town center, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Paris Valley, owner of Paris & Ty’€™s Barbecue in Chicopee, cooks up some pulled pork and her signature Malian steak tips to feed a long line of hungry customers, during the Community Jubilee hosted by the town of Amherst in honor of the Juneteenth Holiday, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Aimee Salmon of Northampton dances to WOFA Dance Company’s West African beats which kicked off a Community Jubilee in the Amherst Town Common in celebration of Juneteenth, the first “official” celebration in the commonwealth since being declared a state and federal holiday, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • The Amherst Area Gospel Choir, led by Jacqueline Wallace, performed an inspired rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the Community Jubilee at the town common to celebrate Juneteenth, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Storyteller Onawumi Jean Moss speaks to the crowd during the Community Jubilee hosted by the town of Amherst in honor of the Juneteenth Holiday, Saturday at the town common in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • WOFA Director Alpha Kabisko Kaba leads a spirited performance with the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School’s African Dance and Drum Company during a Community Jubilee in honor of Juneteenth, Saturday at the town center in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • WOFA Director Alpha Kabisko Kaba leads a spirited performance with the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School’€™s African Dance and Drum Company during a Community Jubilee in honor of Juneteenth, Saturday at the town center in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Africana Dance & Fitness Instructor Aimee Salmon guides the audience in a dance routine during the Juneteenth Community Jubilee at the Amherst Town Center, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Africana Dance & Fitness Instructor Aimee Salmon guides the audience in a dance routine during the Juneteenth Community Jubilee at the Amherst Town Center, Saturday in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

Staff Writer 
Published: 6/20/2021 12:29:37 PM

AMHERST — On the 156th anniversary of Union soldiers marching into Galveston, Texas, to liberate the last slaves after the Civil War, a ceremony at the West Cemetery on Saturday recognized and honored some of the very same soldiers who were there June 19, 1865 — the day that became known as Juneteenth.

The opening event for celebrations in Amherst for Juneteenth, now a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, took place at the gravesite for members of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry from Amherst. Texas was the last state to concede after the Civil War, and the last state to liberate former slaves.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed a bill recognizing the holiday, marking the 11th holiday recognized by the federal government.

A gravestone engraved with the names James Thompson, Charles Thompson, Christopher Thompson, Henry Thompson and John Thompson — who served in the 54th Regiment and were sent to Galveston on June 19, 1865 — made for a remarkable place to kick off Amherst’s celebration of the first official Juneteenth.

“It’s really full circle for me, personally, because I now live in Houston, Texas,” said William Harris, the great-great-great-grandson of Christopher Thompson, on Saturday during the ceremony. “I know that my ancestors made that sacrifice because they were free men at the time they joined the regiment. And I believe they joined in the hopes that their descendants could enjoy a better life.”

Harris noted that he is now the president and CEO of the Space Center in Houston, and that, “It fills me with pride, that wow, I am realizing the hope that they had when they joined the 54th Regiment and they were fighting for their brothers in the slave states.”

Roughly 120 people attended the ceremony, where prayers were offered and speeches were given by Denise R. Jordan, of Springfield’s Housing Authority, and Amherst College Professor Emeritus Robert Romer, who also wrote a book entitled “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts.”

Jordan emphasized the importance for younger generations to learn about the history and legacy of Juneteenth, and implored educators to teach the meaning of the holiday to students.

Romer, a former Historical Commission member in Amherst, told about the 200,000 Black men who fought in the Civil War, describing their service as “absolutely essential.” His research into the local history of slavery found that 23 African American residents from Amherst enlisted out of about 100.

Saturday morning’s tribute included a military salute provided by the Peter Brace Brigade, a Springfield Civil War reenactor group named for Peter Brace, who fought for the Union Army as a member of the first Black regiment raised in the North.

Marble tablets

A soulful rendition of “We Shall Overcome” by the Amherst Area Gospel Choir greeted attendees in the courtyard of the Bangs Community Center ahead of the unveiling of the town’s famed Civil War plaques.

The 1893 marble tablets, commissioned by the regional chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic Veterans Association, recognize soldiers from Amherst who served in the Union, including African Americans from the 54th Regiment.

The ceremony featured many speakers who talked about the importance of recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, recounted how African American residents of Amherst, including Amilcar Shabazz, a professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, were instrumental in motivating state legislators to forge ahead in making Juneteenth a state holiday. Comerford recalled how Shabazz asked her, “When are you going to call this holiday into being?”

Comerford said state Reps. Mindy Domb and Bud Williams, among others, were spurred into action.

“All of us received that message and we got to work,” Comerford said.

Last July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that marked June 19 as an official state holiday, 13 years after former Gov. Deval Patrick signed the first proclamation commemorating Juneteenth in the state.

After Comerford spoke, a musical performance by Valley local Eshu Bumpus on an electric guitar, played softly and rhythmically, included the lyrics, “They brought me to a land so free, a land they called freedom. Separated from my wife and son, working long until you can’t see the sun.”

A drum circle performance and songs from the choir were also woven between speeches, which were concluded by Westfield State professor emeritus Kamal Ali, who took a moment to reflect on progress still needed toward racial justice.

“Since George Floyd’s death, over 170 Black people got killed by police in the United States,” Ali said. “Schools are more segregated in the United States than ever before.”

He said that there is a movement afoot to stamp out the history of racism in the United States in public education, and he urged people to make an effort to ensure laws and policies reflect the injustices that have occurred toward African Americans.

Festivities

By 1 p.m., the day’s festivities were in full swing. African drummers took to a stage on the Town Common where various food vendors representing Black, Indigenous and people of color were assembled. People danced to the music, spices from the Caribbean cuisine lofted in the air, and joyous faces, young and old, mingled about the common.

Close to the stage stood Clive Anderson, who played his Ghanian kente drum after the ceremony at the West Cemetery where the group played a moving rendition of “Rivers of Babylon,” a Rastafari song popularized by the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970.

Anderson lives in Belchertown but used to live in Amherst, which he moved to from New York. He said he first learned of Juneteenth in 2010 when he came to Amherst, and that he has celebrated the holiday ever since.

“Still there are states holding back Black history and not telling it,” Anderson said. “And the history of Black people is rich, but it’s extremely difficult.”

He said there is a lot of post-traumatic stress that African Americans suffer due to the history of slavery and injustice.

Anderson said he hopes to see African American communities come together with more unity and face their obstacles by supporting each other. He said there is a long history of African Americans being separated and that has an unfortunate and lasting legacy in modern day America.

Fifteen-year-old Jaden Caraballo, of Amherst, said he wanted to come to the Juneteenth celebration to “show support,” and said, “It’s very nice to see the community coming together.”

He said he learned about Juneteenth and its history in school and it’s something discussed during class.

Demetria Rougeaux Shabazz, spouse of Amilcar and a lecturer in film, media and cultural studies at UMass Amherst, said she grew up in Galveston and celebrated Juneteenth all her life, before it became a state holiday in Texas in 1980.

She credited former Texas state Rep. Al Edwards, which represented her city, for working to make Juneteenth a state holiday there.

Demetria echoed Harris’ comment earlier in the day of feeling like events have come “full circle,” and yet, she said there is work to be done. She said voting rights, and critical race theory being taught in schools, are currently being chipped away at on the national level.

“We have to fight the struggle,” Demetria said. “And we need everyone. If [the struggle] affects the African American community, then it affects everybody.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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