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Governor Deval Patrick shook hands with children after signing a proclamation on Juneteenth in Dorchester yesterday. Massachusetts follows 24 states that have recognized the date.
Governor Deval Patrick shook hands with children after signing a proclamation on Juneteenth in Dorchester yesterday. Massachusetts follows 24 states that have recognized the date. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)

Juneteenth has its day

Mass. to observe date marking final end of slavery

June 19 is now Juneteenth Independence Day in Massachusetts.

As smoke lifted from hundreds of barbecue grills and children sipped strawberry soda under tents yesterday in Franklin Park, Governor Deval Patrick signed a proclamation that makes June 19 a day of observance to commemorate the date in 1865 when the last people held as slaves in the United States learned they were free.

Massachusetts follows 24 states that have officially recognized the date. As Patrick held the proclamation aloft, cheers erupted among the thousands of people who turned out for the celebration.

"This is something we've all waited for a long time," said Shirley Battle , 77, who moments earlier had leaned over the signing table and kissed Patrick on the cheek after he signed the proclamation. "It means so much that he signed it," she said.

The day held special symbolism for Patrick, the Commonwealth's first African-American governor, as well as national and local organizers of the effort to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.

" It's a wonderful occasion for the neighborhood, the extended family, and the community to come together like this, and the spirit here is powerful," said Patrick, surrounded by a crowd of people attempting to take snap shots with him. "I remember coming here last year and getting so much encouragement in the course of the campaign, and I get that same encouragement here again today."

The Rev. Ronald Myers , chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation , hailed the proclamation yesterday in a telephone interview from Mississippi.

"It's significant what happened in Massachusetts for two reasons, the first being that this is number 25, which means we're halfway," Myers said. "The second reason is that the proclamation was signed by Deval Patrick, who is the only black governor in the country. We hope that he will be a supporter of Juneteenth as he meets other governors, and let them know how significant that date is."

Myers said the foundation, which he created, began working in 2000 to make Juneteenth a national holiday that would be observed in each state, similar to the way Flag Day is.

"We'll probably get five more states by next year, and we'll keep working until we get all the states," he said.

In 1980 , Texas became the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth. It remains the only state that observes the holiday as a day off for state workers. Florida and Oklahoma proclaimed Juneteenth a day of observance in the 1990s , and the other 22 states have made similar proclamations since 2000 .

Myers and local organizers predicted yesterday that nationwide observance of the day may not be far away .

"With every state that signs off, it greatly increases the effort to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday," said Ralph F. Browne Jr., the cochairman of the Massachusetts Branch of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign. "When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, that was just the beginning of the task to eradicate slavery. I think that it is proper that we, as a country, recognize the end of it."

The Emancipation Proclamation became official Jan. 1, 1863, but it was not until June 19, 1865 , that slaves in Texas found out they were free. Union soldiers led by General Gordon Granger sailed into Galveston with news that the war had ended and all slaves were free. Former slaves held huge cookouts to celebrate.

Those cookouts are re-created annually in celebrations from Texas to Virginia, where community wide barbecues have been a custom for many decades.

In Boston, the first significant celebration occurred about 11 years ago, when a small group of Roxbury residents gathered after the funeral of a friend. They began discussing Juneteenth, and decided to start an annual event that has become known as Roxbury Pride Day Juneteenth Celebration , said Evelyn Thorpe , chairwoman of the Roxbury Homecoming Committee . "In the South, Juneteenth is very well-known, but people in the North didn't really know about it, about the history," she said.

Thorpe said as many as 5,000 people attended the celebration yesterday, slightly more than the average crowds in recent years. People danced under sunny skies to soul music from the 1970s, family members pounded playing cards onto folding tables, and several men played tennis at a nearby court. But food dominated the event. Small grills, cooking up sausages or burgers , were everywhere. A few families lugged large, stainless steel grills with multiple cooking levels onto the grass and set up elaborate picnic areas. At one large gathering, catered food was set up buffet-style.

"I've been going to the same place every year, Chef Lee," said Ron Wortham , 68, of Roxbury. "The ribs, the chicken, the salad, it's all there," he said, pointing to a long table with foil-covered pans. Wortham then pointed to several dozen people sitting under a shade tree. "We've been doing this since it started 11 years ago. Most of us are in our 60s or 70s and we've know n each other since we were about 8 years old."

Nearby, Wortham's 5-year-old granddaughter, Troi Rene Wortham , read a children's book about Juneteenth.

"We bought her that book because we wanted her to know everything about the celebration," Ron Wortham said. "Not that it's just a time to eat good food."