Community leader Shirley Edgerton serves on the executive committee of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, is the cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools, and is the founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires and the Rites of Passage + Empowerment (ROPE) program, which provides mentorship to adolescent girls on their journey to adulthood.
She recently spoke to The Eagle about the significance of Juneteenth. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What is Juneteenth, and why do we celebrate?
A: One of the things we need to understand is that it’s important that we celebrate diverse holidays, because it enhances the perspective of respect for each other. It brings awareness to each other’s culture. And it also teaches us that though we have differences, there are some things that we have in common in terms of family, traditions and beliefs.
In particular for Juneteenth, as African Americans, we need to know our history, just as any and all groups need to know their history. Knowing your history, as a society and as a culture, leads you to a point of not repeating what was done.
Enslavement, to me, is one of the major atrocities that our country is still wrestling with, because it has impacted every aspect of our being in this country — if we’re honest about our history.
It’s important that we understand enslavement, that we understand the process of freedom, and how the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln initially signed on Jan. 1  did not fully free all enslaved African Americans.
So, two-and-a-half years later, Gen. [Gordon] Granger went to Galveston, Texas, and had to alert the people that, you are free. He let owners know, you can no longer enslave others. You can work out a relationship as employer-employee, but we’re here to free these last people that are enslaved.
Not knowing history, particularly African American history and other groups of color, that is problematic, because it perpetuates the injustices that are historical in our country. So, I think that’s another important aspect that we need to understand: freedom, that we are a free people.
So, when we start talking about inequities, like mass-incarceration and the large numbers of people of color, particularly men, that are incarcerated in comparison to others. ... when we talk about housing issues, inequities and wealth, all of those things are connected to enslavement; we can’t separate out our history. So, we need to understand that Juneteenth Day is significant and the joy that it brought, but also that there’s still work to be done.
Q: Has the holiday gained prominence after a year of racial reckoning?
A: This year has been extraordinary because of the things that have happened and the way the world has been able to see them. I don’t know if it’s because of COVID, and we were housebound, or because of the media, but the reality is that this was an extraordinary year.
It’s another significant time in our history as people on this planet, and as Americans in particular, where we’re paying attention once again to the inequities.
This reminds me of the civil rights movement, and that time period and the massive outpouring of protests that occurred. This is another historical point where there’s been significant outpouring and protest.
And I think Juneteenth this year is part of that, is part of what is happening in terms of the extraordinary outpouring of interest, education, awareness and allies, because there have been others who have not been of color who have participated in the protests; from politicians to our next-door neighbors, there are others who have chosen to be allies in the struggle.
So, this year is significant, but my hope is that every Juneteenth will be significant, and that we will use it as a people to remember what was in terms of enslavement, and then use it as an opportunity to be self-reflective, to see where we are now. And to come to draw some conclusions about what we need to continue to be progressive, and to continue the journey of freedom that we’re on.
Q: How is Pittsfield commemorating Juneteenth?
A: On Saturday, the NAACP is hosting the celebration that will include Dennis Powell and a young person who will speak. In terms of freedom and celebration, the Women of Color Giving Circle and the NAACP will present college scholarships for 2021 graduates. The Women of Color Giving Circle this year will be giving at least three scholarships, because of the contributions of family
members from Mabel Hamilton.
Family and friends donated $1,200 toward the Rosemary Durant-Mabel Hamilton scholarship. We also have had some major contributions to a new scholarship we’re calling the Founders Scholarship, in honor of those founding members of the circle; many of them have passed away. We received a handsome donation in honor of Reverend M. Louise Williamson and other members.