Juneteenth and Buy Black NB seem like a natural combination.
The official federal holiday and the city’s new Black business fair were born in the same year, and Buy Black has quickly made its mark as an uplifting New Bedford-centric celebration of young African-American entrepreneurs.
Coming on Juneteenth weekend, Buy Black also marks New Bedford’s coming of age for a new set of national holidays: Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“We wanted it to be a tradition and something that is a respected tradition, and something to honor Juneteenth,” said Justina Perry, Buy Black’s founder and director, about the holiday connection.
The vendor market graces the elegant grounds of the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and in just two years it has grown from 18 vendors to more than 25. Even the raw November-like weather of this year’s June 19 did not prevent more than 600 people from making their way to the market, where they were regaled by the jazz saxophone sounds of Manny Escobar and the Cape Verdean percussion band Batukada.
I myself was able to score a Harriet Tubman biography and a cool candle wick-cutter while at the market.
Perry came up with the idea for Buy Black NB during the depths of the pandemic when she kept hearing about local Black businesses that had closed. It has now far exceeded her original vision of a simple Black business directory for Greater New Bedford.
It seems more than serendipitous, however, that the Buy Black NB market launched at the same time as this new national holiday.
Prior to two years ago, few Americans had heard of Juneteenth, even though it had long been a revered day marking the final end of slavery in Texas and a few other parts of the country where the celebration had spread. The New Bedford Historical Society for years, under the ever-watchful eye of Lee Blake, had quietly marked it as a family celebration.
Something happened over the last few years, however, that has finally resulted in America gaining a holiday to celebrate the freeing of enslaved Africans, which many would say is the country’s original sin.
Here’s some background of how it happened.
At the height of the pandemic, former President Trump scheduled an indoor rally for his presidential campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19, and Black leaders noted its insensitivity to that city’s extensive Juneteenth celebrations.
Trump eventually rescheduled the rally (which itself became a super-spreader COVID event) for the next day, but the whole controversy threw a spotlight on both the Juneteenth celebrations and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened in the same Oklahoma city 99 years earlier.
Like Juneteenth, the Tulsa race riot has been an event that had made little mark on the national American consciousness. This even though it is considered the worst race riot in American history, with white Tulsa residents destroying tens of city blocks and killing scores of innocent African-Americans. An organized mob of whites literally burned to the ground a successful Black commercial district known as the “Black Wall Street.”
The publicity over Juneteenth, however, struck a chord with the public. And a year later, a bipartisan Congress enacted a federal holiday for June 19, or Juneteenth as it has been known since the day in 1865 when Army Gen. Gordon Granger announced to the Blacks of Galveston that they had been freed from slavery.
President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, but it did not take any real effect in sections of the country such as Texas that were controlled by the Confederacy until Union troops took over. Slavery had also remained legal in Union border states until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.
You might ask, how is it that it took 157 years for America to adopt a holiday celebrating the freeing of its enslaved people?
Well, it didn’t take that long for everybody. For many Black Americans in certain parts of the country, Juneteenth has long been considered a second, and perhaps more important Independence Day — because, in fact, the original Independence Day did not free the enslaved.
But the quickness with which Juneteenth has worked its way into the full national consciousness has been something astonishing. In just two years, the celebration has gone from being largely unknown to a federal holiday for all.
The New Bedford Juneteenth celebrations still have a little way to evolve. The city itself has held no formal celebrations beyond the fact everybody had the day off, but perhaps Buy Black NB made up for that.
In some parts of the country, the Emancipation Proclamation is read; in Texas, they read Army General Order No. 3, which Granger had first read on that 1865 day to both the whites and Blacks in Texas.
Juneteenth has not been the only big change to American holidays in recent years.
By 2020, 13 states had adopted a holiday honoring Native Americans.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as a full holiday, has replaced Columbus Day in states as diverse as South Dakota and Vermont. Some other states are running dual holidays on the same day (the second Monday in October). Last year, President Biden for the first time declared seemingly contradictory twin holidays: Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day.
But though the president honored Italian-Americans like Columbus for “enriching the nation,” he skipped over all talk of Columbus’ “discovery” of a “New World,” or his ushering in the age of European colonization of the Americas.
And in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day declaration, Biden recited the facts of what the arrival of Europeans actually meant for the peoples of the many nations who were already living in North and South America.
“For Native Americans, western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation: violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease.”
With a proclamation like that, it seems just a matter of time before Columbus Day goes away. It is simply impossible to defend the launching of the era of colonization within the framework of contemporary values.
It is not that Western values are always bad; they certainly are not. There are very good arguments to be made for the Western philosophy and traditional liberal values that Europeans brought to the Americas. But there is no argument to be made for the racially defined, slavery-centered economic system, the mercantilism and colonialism and the violence the Europeans also brought.
Certainly it is true that other peoples — be they indigenous peoples of the Americas or Africa — have been warlike and familiar with slavery themselves. But not on such a scale as New World colonialism brought.
America and New Bedford are changing. What was acceptable and honored in the 17th and even 20th centuries are not the same thing. The Massachusetts Legislature, in a committee co-chaired by Tony Cabral of New Bedford and Marc Pacheco of Taunton, is currently considering a bill that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
With a House Speaker with the name of Ronald Mariano, it’s hard to imagine that will happen soon. But it will happen.
And to be fair, Columbus Day initially became a holiday to honor Italians in the wake of horrible prejudice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In New Bedford, as we move toward Indigenous Peoples’ Day, it might be a time for us to celebrate the large number of Native Americans who have come to live in the city over the last few decades.
No, not the Pocassets or the Aquinnah or the Mashpee Wampanoags. I’m talking about the Mayan people of Guatemala, who are every bit as Native American as the others. Thousands of Mayans now live in the city and are a big part of its economy and culture.
National holidays honoring the ending of slavery and marking the genocide wreaked on the Native American peoples are long overdue. Time changes all things, and values change. One hopes as the cliche goes, that the arc of history bends ever toward justice. But there are no guarantees on that.
For now, we can rejoice in the growing awareness of the truth of our history. As Biden said, in proclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Day: “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”
New Bedford’s own Lee Blake, who has worked on raising consciousness of New Bedford’s own proud Black history for many years, said pretty much the same thing: “I see these things as an opportunity to open the hidden history of people of color.”
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.