It was June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger went into Galveston, Texas and freed the last of the African-Americans being held illegally as slaves. It had been two years since Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months since his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Last Saturday, some 142 years later, Massachusetts became the 25th state in the country to recognize Juneteenth as an official day of celebration, with a big hand from Dorchester resident Ralph F. Browne Jr.
Browne has served as chairman for the Massachusetts branch of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign, an organization that aims at having the day named a Federal holiday. He was delighted to be at Franklin Park on Saturday as Governor Deval Patrick, the Commonwealth's first black governor, and thousands of residents celebrated the signing of a bill to recognize the day.
"It was great. Wonderful weather and a strong multitude were there and the local politicians showed up to back up the governor," Browne said of the Saturday celebration. "Seeing the bill signed was a great honor."
Browne, a resident of Howe Street in Meetinghouse Hill, took over the Massachusetts branch about four years ago and has pushed to expand the celebration of the day, and then for the new governor to sign an official statement recognizing it. He took over from local civic activist Ben Haith, who was the man that developed the Juneteenth flag design now used throughout the nation to celebrate the holiday. Browne's first move, he said, came after seeing a disappointing number of people show up to his first celebration, something he quickly went about fixing.
"When I took over I was a little disappointed at the turnout. And I saw the Roxbury homecoming usually had their event the third week in June so I said 'Why not work closely with the Roxbury homecoming and celebrate with thousands of people?'"
Soon Browne was celebrating every year on the weekend closest to June 19 with the thousands gathered to celebrate Roxbury. He did keep one tradition the same: the raising of the Juneteenth flag at the Dillaway-Thomas House at the Roxbury Heritage State Park on the actual day, and while a conflict on the availability of the space precluded that from happening this year, Browne figures the flag will fly again next year. Other ceremonies in Dudley Square and Roxbury commemorate the day as well. For Browne, the 19th of June represents an important moment for the country, one that shouldn't be forgotten.
"I hope it means unity for us today and again the end of a very discouraging era of national time. There is also a message to be sent to some of us who have forgotten the days of slavery," he said. "I think it is a lesson for our children. You know, they say if you forget where you came from you might wind up back there."
And even with the Commonwealth giving its official stamp of approval, Browne says the job isn't over yet, it has simply gotten to the half-way point.
"It's perpetual," he explains. "We've got 25 more states to go to make it a national holiday."