Guest columnist George H. Fleischner: Why we celebrate Juneteenth

  • Richard and Jeanne Hall, of Greenfield, ring the bell at All Souls Church in Greenfield in honor of Juneteenth in 2020. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 6/16/2021 1:24:20 PM

On June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and told the enslaved population of their emancipation. That day — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — would become the oldest annual celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S., known as “Juneteenth.”

The original observances of Juneteenth in Texas included prayer meetings and the singing of spirituals, and celebrants wore new clothes as a way of representing their newfound freedom. Within a few years, African Americans in other states were celebrating the day as well, becoming an annual tradition. Celebrations have continued across the United States into the 21st century and typically include prayer and religious services, speeches, educational events, family gatherings and picnics, and festivals with music, food, and dancing.

Nonotuck Resource Associates has been celebrating Juneteenth as a paid staff holiday since 2020. The Nonotuck community is encouraged to take the day to reflect upon and celebrate Black lives and African American history. We used the occasion to reinvigorate our Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which is responsible for planning future Juneteenth celebrations and highlighting the many cultures that make up our community. The committee helps ensure that Nonotuck is taking an active, action-based approach to inclusion and anti-racism efforts.

As we continue to exist in a world marked by political divide and public trauma for people of color, it is crucial that we continue a collective dialogue on how we can make a world safe for everyone. Nonotuck offers shared living, adult family care and personalized day services for people with disabilities. Each of our services is dedicated to our mission of providing people with disabilities a choice, a voice and the opportunity to live authentic lives. These values have given us a base through which we can approach diversity and inclusion in our organization.

We have prioritized diversity in our hiring practices; roughly half of the Nonotuck workforce is comprised of people who identify as African American, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latino. We continue to strive to provide space for the voices of people of color to be heard every day, with community-wide events and initiatives that we are perpetually expanding.

We mention these practices not because we feel Nonotuck, in particular, should be lauded but because we hope these practices will be universally seen as the first steps in a never-ending process. Whether it’s in the human service industry, nonprofit, corporate, private or public sector, it’s more timely than ever to be cognizant of these needs.

In 1980, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday or observance. Legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was recently introduced by Massachusetts’s own Sen. Ed Markey.

It’s a good start, with much more ground yet to be covered.

George H. Fleischner is president and CEO of Nonotuck Resource Associates in Northampton and Nonotuck’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

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