Pittsfield – a chance to come together. An opportunity to acknowledge history. An opportunity to respect black culture.
These are some of the things Pittsfield residents look forward to on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of the last enslaved Americans in 1865 after the Civil War.
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Since it is Sunday this year, the holiday is celebrated on Monday. Just a year ago, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation making it a state holiday.
Last week, the Berkshire Eagles spoke with the folks in Pittsfield about their feelings and thoughts on the holiday. While many people don’t know what the celebration is about, they have their own take on its importance.
“It’s not just an acknowledgement of the African-American experience, it’s an acknowledgement of freedom and justice prevailing,” said Dawn Durant, a longtime Pittsfield resident.
Growing up, the city was less diverse, she said.
“The diversity that exists in Pittsfield has never existed before. So praise God because it’s a good thing,” she said.
Lee Samuel Rose has lived in Pittsfield for 20 years, but has spent most of his time in Mississippi. When asked about Juneteenth, Ross didn’t know about the holiday, but took the opportunity to talk about how racism and hatred affected him during those years.
Growing up, Ross said he endured prejudice of all kinds, from the sleazy appearance of walking down the street to outright insults. Learning to stand up for himself was a vital part of his life as many expected him to endure this prejudice silently.
“They don’t want you to speak for yourself,” Ross said. “It’s almost like being in court. You have nothing to say. You can’t talk, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Your lawyer has to do all the talking. That’s pretty much what I had when I came up. “
Even now, Ross is having a hard time speaking out about his experience. Some things he would rather forget.
Ross said he doesn’t understand the hatred mentality that many hold and wants to see people come together.
“We can’t judge a person by their skin color,” Ross said. “We have to judge a person by the content of his character. That’s how we judge a person. But I don’t see that happening. Too many people want to keep racism going, not get rid of it.”
Pittsfield resident Jon Kane said he appreciates the city for doing more to promote diversity and unity. He was interviewed by artist Brittany Warner, who was working on a street art installation by Stephanie Wilson, the second African-American woman to go into space and a Pittsfield tower graduate Connick High School.
“I think it’s much better to do things like do things in a positive way, rather than be like, ‘Oh, let’s transform like the streets,'” Kane said. “[The city is] Do something that brings people together and makes things more civilized. “
Kaylani Wells, 9, said the Juneteenth holiday was important because it invited people to acknowledge the history behind it.
“I think it’s important because if you don’t remember history, it’s forgotten,” she said. “I think if history is forgotten, it will have a major impact on the planet.”
Henry Rose said the holiday needed more recognition. Despite winning the U.S. History Medal in high school, Ross said he hadn’t heard of Juneteenth until about 10 years ago.
“We’ve fallen short in public education on this important holiday,” Ross said.
For some in the community, however, it was more than a celebration. For Dawn Durant, it’s an opportunity to continue fighting for change.
“It’s not a question of looking back, it’s a question of moving forward… We want Juneteenth to be more than a celebration, but a movement where we can say, ‘The next generation can take it and run with it,'” Durant said.