PITTSFIELD — For Dennis Powell, a paradox lies at the heart of what’s considered the nation’s oldest known celebration of emancipation.
“We are here to celebrate Juneteenth,” he told over 100 people gathered at Park Square at a Juneteenth rally on Saturday. “A paradox of celebrating horror: If we never had slaves, we wouldn’t be celebrating this. But the fact that we are celebrating it means that our country is moving a little closer, but at the same time, we know we’ve got a long way to go before we can really say we’re free.”
Powell, president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, addressed the crowd who attended the event the organization he helms hosted on the picturesque afternoon to commemorate Juneteenth, the day long observed in Black communities but recognized as a federal holiday for the first time this year.
The occasion was marked by remembrance and celebration, as attendees applauded stipends awarded by the NAACP and the Women of Color Giving Circle to dozens of African American students bound for higher education.
Powell began his address by reading the poem “God Never Made A Slave” by James Mars. Mars had been enslaved by a minister Connecticut, and after evading the slaveowner’s attempts to smuggle him to Virginia moved with his family to Pittsfield, where they remained for about two decades, according to the Documenting the American South project from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“His works are wonderful to see, all, all, proclaim the Deity. He made the earth, and formed the wave, but never, never, made a slave. ... All men are equal in his sight, the bond, the free, the black, the white. He made them all, them freedom gave, He made the man, man made the slave,” Mars’ poem reads in part.
Powell went on to read General Order No. 3, the message that on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — informed the people of Galveston, Texas that “all slaves are free.”
But even then, some slave owners waited until after the harvest to tell those they enslaved the bonds of slavery had been legally lifted. And when the formerly enslaved celebrated, some were met with deadly violence.
“So let’s not think that Juneteenth and the 13th Amendment or the Emancipation Proclamation did all, or was as smooth, as everyone would like us to believe,” Powell said. “But let us celebrate, and continue to celebrate.”
And with that, the crowd celebrated the young African American people who, said Shirley Edgerton, have “been at tables, discussing social unrest and racial justice issues.”
“They’ve been in the educational system,” said Edgerton, the community leader and cultural proficiency coach for the Pittsfield Public Schools, “sharing what needs to be done, and what their experiences are. They’ve been letting the administration know that we need to work a little bit harder with diversifying our educational system.”
Edgerton distributed the first ever Founders Scholarship offered by the Women of Color Giving Circle — women founders on whose shoulders she said the students stand today.
This year, the NAACP, through its virtual annual fundraiser back in January, raised $60,000 to provide stipends to students of color in Berkshire County, their largest-ever total in the fund’s history, said Powell. The funding is being used to provide stipends to 23 students of color across Berkshire County, some of whom received their award from Powell and NAACP chapter Vice President Sabrina Allard at Saturday’s event.
“Black joy does matter,” said Allard, echoing the words on a sign someone held at the rally. “Graduates, you matter. You are our ancestors wildest dreams. You are creating new dreams, and we are so proud of you.”