As Stephenie Jackson-Wilson poured charcoal into her portable grill Saturday, she struggled to recall a single year she missed the Roxbury Homecoming in Boston’s Franklin Park before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was very disappointing. That was – wow. It was devastating for the world - that pandemic,” said Jackson-Wilson, a lifelong resident of Roxbury.
Although there was no “official” plan to celebrate Juneteenth there this year, according to the Franklin Park Coalition, that didn’t stop the community from gathering in Shattuck Picnic Grove. The aptly-named Homecoming resembled a reunion, with family and friends reminiscing over barbeque and beverages, music playing and dancing all around.
“It's all about the love, you know? No matter what we've been through, we all still come together in love,” Jackson-Wilson said.
She described witnessing over the years the annual neighborly cookout absorb the celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery. For some, the holiday had special significance this year because it was the first recognized as both a state and national holiday.
“It’s such an amazing day, celebrating the first official Juneteenth here in the city of Boston with the first Black mayor, first woman mayor. I couldn’t be more thrilled, certainly grateful for this moment and deeply humbled,” Boston Mayor Kim Janey told NBC10 and NECN. "This is like a big family reunion. It is when we come together."
Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a measure to designate the historic day a state holiday, and on Tuesday, the United States Senate passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Since the Massachusetts measure didn’t go into effect until last July, this was the first time the state officially celebrated the holiday.
“We all celebrate in this country, officially, July 4. But not everybody was free,” said Brandon Tilghman, president of the Greater Boston National Pan-Hellenic Council President. “A lot of Black people have been celebrating Juneteenth already, but it's nice to have everybody else recognize the real ending of slavery and freedom for everybody in this country."
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, bringing life-changing news to people living in slavery there: the Confederacy had fallen, and all enslaved people were now free. That day, June 19, would become known as Juneteenth, a day of celebration and reflection for Black Americans and people of all races across the country.
“Coming out in general is a relief after being locked up with COVID, but it's especially important this year,” said Laurlene Hardy, 58 of Dorchester. “Juneteenth. Emancipation Day. Slaves were freed. And it's great that the government is now going to make it a federal holiday, but we've been coming up to Franklin Park for years."
Although the federal recognition came as a relief to many, the community has been celebrating Juneteenth since long before, State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz noted.
"Roxbury and Greater Roxbury has been celebrating Juneteenth for years, right, and didn't wait on any government to sanction this holiday," Chang-Diaz said. "This has been a center of Black joy and community joy and family roots for years, for years and years, you know? And it's also often referred to as Roxbury HomeComing. It's a double celebration."
Traditionally put on by the Roxbury Homecoming Committee, this year community organizations including the National Pan-Hellenic Council Incorporated and Boston Young Black Professionals worked with the city to rope off designated spaces with caution tape. Many groups arrived before 6 a.m. to set up tents, tables and even DJ booths.
Tilghman, 39, was one of those organizers who stepped up, along with nine historically Black fraternities and sororities within the organization, to make it happen.
"We need this," Tilghman said. "We need it."