Despite being the most well-known, the Fourth of July is not the only celebration of independence in the United States. On Saturday June 19, Juneteenth, the anniversary of freedom for all slaves in America, was celebrated at several businesses along Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, followed by a reception at Deon’s restaurant.
“We thought that by bringing the celebration to Circuit Ave, we would attract street traffic and be able to better educate people about Juneteenth,” said event organizer Ardell Otten, who worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to make the celebration possible. Today, Juneteenth is recognized in 38 states.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, news of the freedom of slaves did not reach parts of Texas until 1865, when the proclamation was read to slaves who had heard only rumors and stories of their freedom. The reason for the two-year delay is unknown, but possibilities include the murder of the messenger en route to Texas with the news, or collusion between state office holders in the north and south who wanted to prolong slavery and increase profits.
On Saturday, some of the proceeds from sales at Cousen Rose Gallery, L’Elegance, and C’est La Vie on Circuit Ave went to the Martha’s Vineyard Bradley Square Project in which the NAACP and Island Affordable Housing Fund are collaborating to preserve the Bradley Memorial Church, Martha’s Vineyard’s first African American church, established in 1892.
At 4 pm, Deon’s opened its doors for a reception consisting of food, dancing, and a “speech” given by Carole Simpson, journalist in residence at the Museum of African American History, based in Boston, which also has two sites on Nantucket.
“I have given hundreds of speeches, but I wanted this one to be different,” said Ms. Simpson, who arrived at the podium dressed as a slave to present a brief history of slavery and Juneteenth. “We live in an information explosion, and today, no matter what, the info will find you. But what if it took two years before it did?”
Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School junior Grant Meacham then read an excerpt from “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech by Frederick Douglass discussing the lack of freedom for every American.
Ms. Simpson returned in a Victorian dress as a newly freed Texas slave who raided her mistress’s wardrobe for the first Juneteenth celebration. “Do you ever hear about this independence day?” she asked. “How many Juneteenth celebrations have you been to?
“Now I am going to celebrate Juneteenth, and I want all of you to join me on the dance floor.”