J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 08, 2021

Quock Walker Day and Juneteenth

Back in June 2006, just weeks after I launched Boston 1775, I shared my thoughts on whether Juneteenth should become a Massachusetts holiday.

Juneteenth would be a synecdoche for the end of slavery in the U.S., I wrote. The 19th of June was the date in 1865 when slavery ended in some parts of Texas, but it stood for the process of liberation over a broader range of space and time.

As Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book On Juneteenth relates, some African-American citizens have celebrated that date for generations.

Most of my 2006 posting focused on the end of slavery in Massachusetts, more than seventy-five years before the U.S. Civil War. I quoted state Chief Justice William Cushing‘s charge to the jury in one of the legal cases arising between Quock Walker and the man who claimed him, Nathaniel Jennison.

Publicizing the full history of slavery in Massachusetts was, I argued, more important for this state than observing Juneteenth, which shifted the problem to another corner of the country.

Last year the Massachusetts legislature voted to make the 8th of July Quock Walker Day, commemorating the end of legal slavery in this state. This is the first year to observe the holiday, and the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington is hosting a community celebration online this evening at 7:00 P.M.

In addition, last month the U.S. Congress voted to make Juneteenth the national celebration of the end of slavery. All too predictably, the far right opposed that. The only votes in Congress against the resolution were from fourteen Republican members of the House.

Many progressives also noted the irony that endorsement of the holiday was coinciding with a push in many states to make voting more difficult. The current U.S. Supreme Court said that state legislators can impose obstacles to voting even when they know those measures don’t solve serious problems and would affect African-American citizens most.

TOMORROW: A question of timing.

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