Juneteenth celebrations animate Amherst on Saturday, Wednesday

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 in 2021.

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 in 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Amherst Town Councilor Anika Lopes speaks as William Harris looks on during the Juneteenth at the Amherst Woman’s Club last year in Amherst.

Amherst Town Councilor Anika Lopes speaks as William Harris looks on during the Juneteenth at the Amherst Woman’s Club last year in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Civil War reenactors of the Peter Brace 54th Regiment exit the Juneteenth celebration at the Amherst Woman’s Club last year in Amherst.

Civil War reenactors of the Peter Brace 54th Regiment exit the Juneteenth celebration at the Amherst Woman’s Club last year in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Alpha Kabisko Kaba leads a spirited performance with the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School’s African Dance and Drum Company during a Jubilee Celebration in honor of Juneteenth in 2021 on the Amherst Town Common.

Alpha Kabisko Kaba leads a spirited performance with the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School’s African Dance and Drum Company during a Jubilee Celebration in honor of Juneteenth in 2021 on the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2024 4:53 PM

AMHERST — Celebrations to mark Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last American citizens in Galveston, Texas were informed that slavery was abolished, are scheduled for both Saturday and on the federal holiday itself.

Three years after June 19, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, became both a Massachusetts and a federal holiday, there will be opportunities to gather to mark the occasion.

Juneteenth Legacy Celebration

Leading off the commemorations will be the fourth annual Ancestral Bridges Juneteenth Legacy Celebration on Saturday, which aims to promote the often erased and lesser-known history of the Black and Afro Indigenous community of Amherst by using both historic records and oral history contributions from descendants. This both brings archives to life and connects to the present, says Anika Lopes, who founded the nonprofit organization.

The daylong celebration, with activities and exhibits for all ages that allow people to immerse themselves in the daily lives, struggles and triumphs over more than 200 years, touches on local historic Black military service, education, housing and civil rights, under the title “Chains to Change: Honoring Amherst’s Everyday Heroes.”

At 11 a.m., the Juneteenth Heritage Walk begins, a series of free events with no tickets required, starting at the Historic West Cemetery on Triangle Street with a Civil War-era reenactment. Some of the Amherst soldiers who delivered the message of freedom in Galveston are buried there.

At noon, the walk moves to the Amherst Woman’s Club, 35 Triangle St., where speakers, exhibits and family-friendly activities begin and lunch will be served. This will be followed by a visit to the neighboring Emily Dickinson Museum, 280 Main St., at 1:30 p.m., and to Hope Community Church, 16 Gaylord St., from 3 to 4 p.m.

The day concludes with the inaugural Story Slam at The Drake, 44 North Pleasant St., at 7 p.m. Featuring diverse storytellers from Amherst and the wider Connecticut River Valley, the story slam will celebrate heritage, culture and the human spirit. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets can be reserved online at The Drake website, with a suggested $19 donation.

Transportation for the walking tour is available for those with limited mobility. They should meet at Amherst Regional High School at 10:30 a.m.

Community Gathering on the Common

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Also on Saturday, from 3 to 6 p.m., the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office will gather and celebrate freedom on the Town Common.

The event will feature music by DJ Benjamin Herrington, a visit with community partners and free ice cream, while it lasts, from Flayvors of Cook Farm. There will also be an opportunity to discover new volunteer opportunities and interact with vendors.

Juneteenth Jubilee

The longest-running town event is the Juneteenth Jubilee, presented by the Black Business Association of Amherst Area and marking its 15th anniversary, on the holiday next Wednesday.

From 1 to 4 p.m. at Mill River Recreation Area, 95 Montague Road, the public is invited to performances by Pamoja Drum and Dance Collective, sound by Maurice “Soulfighter” Taylor, yoga with Grounded in Wellness 365 and a talk by University of Massachusetts professor Amilcar Shabazz on reparations.

Games, children’s crafts, poetry and soul food from Henryne’s Catering will be available.

“We want people to come out and have a good time and enjoy free food,” said Pat Ononibaku, the president of the Black Business Association.

Maintaining the free, fun day is a cause of the Cage and Shabazz families, who helped create the celebration.

In fact, Shabazz moved from Texas, where Juneteenth was already a state holiday, and incorporated more cultural relevance into a family fun day the Cages staged at Groff Park.

For Shabazz, Juneteenth includes an educational dimension, though is largely a time for families to have a reunion, a good time and a day off from work to relax. He helped encourage legislators including Jo Comerford, Mindy Domb and Bud Williams to support the legislation for Massachusetts to make it an official state holiday.

“It’s not just for Black people, it’s a day for everyone,” Shabazz said, adding that the day marks an important milestone for the country. “This is a step that put the United States on a path toward real liberty for all.”

A highlight this year will be the presentation of the Black Youth Excellence Award, being given to Darius Cage, a recent Amherst Regional High School graduate. Cage is being honored for both his service to the community and his social justice activism, including bringing the perspective of an African American youth to the Community Safety Working Group, a town committee created to make recommendations to the town manager and the Town Council regarding public safety and police reform following the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

In part, Cage provided insights about the need for a Youth Empowerment Center, based on interviews with his peers, and supported the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service Department. “Darius is a visionary in recognizing at a young age to lend his voice to make Amherst a better community for all residents,” his award states.

Shabazz said having the award accompany Juneteenth makes since, since there are opportunities to engage youth around Juneteenth civics lessons at the end of the school year.

The jubilee is supported by the Amherst Cultural Council, Amherst Media, Bridge for Unity, Greenfield Cooperative Bank and Sankofa Gumbo.

Juneteenth Gala

For the second time, a Juneteenth Gala is being put on by 80 Acres, an Amherst nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing climate and racial justice.

“Liberation in Our Lifetime” is taking place at the Amherst Public House, 40 University Drive, on the holiday from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

For organizers, the celebration is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. The gala aims to honor this legacy while highlighting achievements and contributions of Black communities to society, with announcements, an awards ceremony and a keynote address.

“We are thrilled to host our second annual Juneteenth Gala as a platform to celebrate freedom, resilience and the rich heritage of Black culture,” says Adrienne Wallace, president of 80 Acres.

The black and gold gala will also serve as a fundraiser to support the 80 Acres Seeds of Change Grant program for local nonprofits handing work that aligns with 80 Acres mission.

Those who wish to attend the gala should RSVP by text to 413-435-0154 or send email to anthony@80acres.org by Friday.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.