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‘Joy in the culture. Joy in movement. Joy in sound.’ Juneteenth brings celebration and reflection across NH

Communities across New Hampshire celebrated Juneteenth, which marks the announcement of the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

Juneteenth has been a federal holiday since 2021. In New Hampshire, it’s a day of observance but not an official state holiday. Every other New England state except Vermont has formally recognized it as a public holiday, according to Pew Research.

In Portsmouth Monday morning, a crowd gathered at the African Burying Ground memorial park, the site of a cemetery where some of the city’s first African and African American residents were laid to rest. It was the culmination of a series of Juneteenth celebrations hosted by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, which also included a tour, a panel discussion, an art exhibit opening, a reggae festival, a dance performance, and a performance by the Howard Gospel Choir.

The Akwaaba ensemble, which performs highlife music and West African drumming and dance, played as participants danced and sang along. Rev. Robert Thompson offered his words, and a prayer, to the crowd.

“Today as we stand having heard from the motherland, passion, and seen physical expression,” he said, “having been reminded of the journey of ancestors across the ocean, having been reminded that some did not make it, but are still there. Their spirits live forever. Let us then pull together all that we hold sacred in this moment. Let us turn our attention to what we hold most dear.”

Thompson said he hoped people came away from the event strengthened and invigorated — and with a sense of pride.

“I'm also hopeful that people will have a sense of pride that this place exists for us to learn about each other and who we are,” he said, in an interview after the event. “And it's worth celebrating.”

For JerriAnne Boggis, the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, the event was about joy.

“Joy in the culture. Joy in movement. Joy in sound,” she said. “Just really understanding also what it means to express freedom. June 19th, we're celebrating emancipation. So this is freedom of the human spirit.”

While Juneteenth celebrations have expanded across New Hampshire in recent years, Boggis said there’s more work to do.

“New Hampshire is starting to do a lot more celebrating, but we're still 2% of the population. We're still raising awareness of our story here,” she said. “We still have that bridge to build.”

In Claremont, school board member and community organizer Whitney Skillen planned a bike parade and community picnic to celebrate the holiday on Monday evening. The bike parade is meant to encourage people to reflect on how long it took for news that all enslaved peoples were free to reach Galveston, Texas. Ahead of the event, Skillen said Juneteenth is a time to reflect on history, and on the struggles the country still faces.

“I hope people feel community, feel like we are having a celebration of freedom, but also feel like we're setting aside a time to remember an important part of U.S. history as it happened and to spark people's curiosity to want to learn more,” she said.

Skillen said this was the first Juneteenth event she’s organized in Claremont, but she’s hoping it will be an annual celebration going forward. Other communities, including Keene, Milford, Warner and Lebanon, hosted their own Juneteenth celebrations in recent days, as well.

Back in Portsmouth, Boggis said she hoped the Juneteenth celebrations helped to elevate some of the experiences that have been left out of the narrative surrounding the ongoing celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the city’s colonization.

“This was part of our way of saying: ‘We're here. We've always been here. We've always contributed. And we're part of this culture that is America,’” she said.

Terry John Robinson, the marketing specialist at the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, said he hopes events like this also encourage people to reflect more fully on the “fullness and humanness” of the experiences of Africans and African Americans in the United States.

“All those experiences, the power of those experiences, the weight of those experiences are still felt today,” he said. “And we want to make sure that we honor that.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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