Reading, MA — On the last day of school across the town, residents came to the Reading Town Common to learn one more lesson; that of the history of Juneteenth and the history of slavery in Reading.
“Obviously, the events of the past few months have been deeply concerning, and I have been trying to find a way to get more involved and make a difference. I, like I think many people, just found out that Juneteenth was a holiday, I am embarrassed to say, but I am happy to be here and participate in my first one with my family” said Reading resident Steve Peacock.
“My mom is white, and I am black, and it is really hard to grow up in a white community. My mom’s friend Sherilla [Lestrade] asked me if I wanted to come to this event today, and I am really surprised by how many people are here” said resident Daija Forero.
June 19, more commonly known as Juneteenth, marks the day in 1865, nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, in which slaves in Galveston, Texas received news that they were free.
“I think that is the miscommunication that some people have, that they think this was the day that slaves were freed. They had been free for two years, but [Juneteenth] marks that even after that some people still kept slaves, and the slaves had no way of knowing because they weren’t allowed to read or write” said Sherilla Lestrade, one of the organizers of the event.
The event, which began at 6 pm on Friday, was spearheaded by Reading resident Kevin Dua and organized over the span of 72 hours. The first-ever event commemorating Juneteenth in the town of Reading, the gathering on Friday sought to educate attendees about the history of Juneteenth, and the history of slavery in the town.
“This event came about through a series of intersecting factors: news coverage of neighboring and aboard communities’ plans on celebrating Juneteenth, President Trump’s remarks on the event and his originally scheduled rally on the same date, recent headlines centered on #BlackLivesMatter, and [my noticing of] the March 1833 plaque outside of CVS on Reading’s All-Female Anti-Slavery Society. And, it was me acknowledging aloud the reality: this community has .4% of Black residents, out of 25,000, in a predominantly White space. The White privilege of non-expectation, coupled with the internalized expectation as a Black minority of educating for the sake of agency, safety, and progress was overwhelmingly too much to unsee and not do something right. History is both fragile and fluid and powerful; it is a privilege, once knowledge is obtained, to choose what to do with it, and how. To not do anything would be wrong; to do anything for the sake of it would be wrong, too. To just separate this town’s history from Texas’ history with enslaving Black humans would be wrong and whitewashing history” said Dua of his motivation for organizing the event. Dua won the History Teacher of the Year award in 2017 for his work at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
Dua began the event with a story of a 16-year old boy who was kidnapped from his home in Africa and forced to fight in the Revolutionary War, a conflict that he would eventually die in. That young man’s name was Sharper, and he is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery, just across the street from where yesterday’s Juneteenth event took place. Dua went on to detail the history of slavery in Reading, which was based primarily on the findings of Megan Howie and Kara Gleason in Lives lived unfree: stories of Reading’s enslaved, parts 1 & 2.
In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to legalize slavery, just three years before Reading was founded. Slavery existed within the borders of Reading from 1644 to 1783. Dua detailed the lives of several enslaved Africans who lived in Reading during this period, listing the names of all the people he could find information on.
“To be honest, we have no idea if their bodies lie across the street in the cemetery where Sharper is. We have no idea where the bodies of other black humans are currently buried. We don’t even know if the names that I just read aloud are the names that they’re mothers and fathers chose to give to them” said Dua.
The event also featured a poem from current RMHS student Latoya Kibusi and a speech from RPS grad and Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity (METCO) alum Philmore Phillip II about the history of the METCO program and his own understanding of Juneteenth. The METCO program was founded in 1966 and is the longest continuously running voluntary desegregation program in the country.
“What I read originated as “From Sea to Shining Sea” and I took those lyrics and added my own flavor and played around with it and added a more realistic, modern-day feel to it about what black people are going through and have gone through,” said Kibusi.
“I am surprised that a person my age would have to deal with the same stuff that we fought for in the 1960s. That is what brought me here, because I don’t want my family or my future or people who look like me to come into towns like this and deal with the same things. I’d like them to come to this town with open arms and love and be treated as anyone else would be treated” said Phillip.
The event also featured a speech from Sherilla Lestrade, one of the key organizers behind the two previous Black Lives Matter rallies in the center of Reading, as well as a prayer and a moment of silence led by Cambridge resident Reverend Aisha Ansano, with a focus on calls for justice, learning from our past so to affect change and expressions of hope for the future.
“We hope there will be a day when we will no longer have to proclaim that Black Lives Matter because it is an accepted statement. We come here today with hope that one day our children and our children’s children will not have to fight so hard for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love. And they will look back on us, their ancestors, and be proud of the work that we have done. Things are hard. We are tired. And we cannot stop working” said Ansano. Ansano, who preaches in Malden but whose partner is from Reading, was asked to take part in the event by Pastor Jamie of the Old South United Methodist Church.
At the end of the event, participants received periwinkle seeds and were encouraged to learn more about Reading’s history with slavery and to plant the flowers on the land of these former plantations.
“The significance behind the periwinkle seeds is its strength, its endurance. Like many of black people, the periwinkle seed endures the hardships of the cold, of the dark, and of the night. Like many of the black people who lived and died here in Reading, and around the country, the periwinkle seed comes back again. It was used to mark the graves of the black people who died here, and without those markings, some of those people would never have been identified” Lestrade informed the crowd.
The event concluded at 7:30 pm.