‘We are Americans, too’:Juneteenth a reminder of struggle for Black equality

  • An exhibit about John Putnam, right, of Greenfield at the PVMA Museum in Deerfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • John Putnam of Greenfield, 1827-1895. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • An exhibit about John Putnam of Greenfield at the PVMA Museum in Deerfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • An exhibit about John Putnam at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association museum in Deerfield with curatorial assistant Rachel Sweeney and curator Ray Radigan. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Richard and Jeanne Hall, of Greenfield, ring the bell at All Souls Church in Greenfield in honor of Juneteenth in 2020. Staff FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/21/2021 2:27:51 PM

Americans celebrate July 4 as their day of independence. But many are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that many on this soil weren’t freed from the literal or metaphorical shackles of tyranny in 1776.

Slavery existed in varying degrees across the United States for nearly 100 more years until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation, penned by President Abraham Lincoln 2½ years earlier, had freed the enslaved people in the Confederacy, but its enforcement generally relied on the advancement of Union troops. June 19 is the day in 1865 that Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, where Army General Gordon Granger read aloud General Order No. 3, announcing the end of slavery in Texas. Juneteenth (a blending of June and 19th) is also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day.

“Juneteenth is a reminder for me (of) the brotherhood of man and also that, collectively, we have a long way to go,” said Richard Hall, a retiree who lives in Greenfield with his wife, Jeanne. “All in all, I think Juneteenth is a celebration of the struggle, a celebration of the progress that was made and a reminder of the progress we need to make. And also, we should, in fact, learn to either keep our promises or simply don’t make them, because the rest of the world is looking at us now.”

Gov. Charlie Baker designated Juneteenth Independence Day as a state holiday last year, signing the measure as part of a supplemental coronavirus spending bill. Former Gov. Deval Patrick had signed a proclamation in 2007 recognizing Juneteenth. These days, South Dakota is the only state that does not recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday. Texas was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1980.

In May, the Orange Selectboard voted unanimously to make June 19 a paid holiday for the town’s hourly workers this year. The town was expected to approach the union during contract negotiations to suggest trading another holiday for it or accepting a floating holiday, so there are only 13 paid holidays in a year.

The Halls, parishioners of All Souls Church in Greenfield, chimed the church’s bell 19 times for Juneteenth last year and plan to do the same this year. In fact, all Greenfield churches are encouraged to ring their bells at noon on Saturday, June 19.

“It is important because we are Americans, too. We helped build this country,” Jeanne Hall said. “The country’s built on our backs, on the backs of slaves. And we need to be recognized as equal citizens of these United States. And that has not happened.

“A lot of Americans really need to learn our history,” she added. “They don’t know it.”

‘A tale of two fiddles’

Part of the history Jeanne Hall referred to encompasses Franklin County.

In 1838, an unidentified local artist painted three fictional Black performers, with racist undertones. This was the same time John Putnam, a free Black man, was making a name for himself in the area as a bandleader. Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) in Deerfield recently opened a permanent exhibit pertaining to the painting and Putnam’s life as a way to help the public understand racial attitudes of the time and their lasting impacts today.

One theory is that the painting was crafted by Greenfield folk artist George Washington Mark, but the museum has not been able to formally attribute it to him. The painting was donated to PVMA in 2002 by Betty Boyden.

To use a modern term, two of the figures in the painting are essentially “cropped” from an 1807 print of the Equality Ball, an event thrown by Gov. John Hancock in 1793, a decade after slavery was effectively abolished in Massachusetts. The painting’s third figure, wearing a coat with blue tails, is obviously based on the minstrel show character Long Tail Blue. These depictions mocked Black people for attempting to appear sophisticated and cultured, depicting them in overly elegant clothing. Long Tail Blue was also depicted as threatening for his amorous pursuits of white women.

“Obviously, minstrelsy was a hugely racist tradition … and we found that there were minstrel shows in Deerfield, even,” said Rachel Sweeney, a curatorial assistant at PVMA. “By breaking down the elements of the painting, we can kind of give it more context to understand ... maybe why someone would have bought it.”

Conversely, Putnam lived most of his life in Greenfield, where he owned two barbershops and earned a reputation as “the father of contra dance,” known for his ability to simultaneously play the fiddle and call the dance steps. He was born free in Northampton in 1817 and died in 1895. Sweeney explained the vast majority of Putnam’s clients were white men, as it was taboo to use the same instrument to play for Blacks and whites, but the county was overwhelmingly white.

Putnam had assembled Putnam’s Orchestra by 1875 and was in high demand to play at major musical events, dances and private parties — including at Historic Deerfield’s historic Frary House on Old Main Street.

PVMA Curator Ray Radigan called the exhibit’s creation “an arduous but rewarding process.” The museum is now open every day except Monday through Oct. 31.

“It was kind of a serendipitous time,” he said. “It wasn’t our intention to do this specifically for Juneteenth. We don’t want to seem like we’re jumping on the bandwagon, but at the same time, we do want to spread the word that we are telling these stories.”

Radigan and Sweeney mentioned the Deerfield Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1838, the same year the painting in question was created. The town was divided over the issue, with roughly 100 residents celebrating at the town’s Brick Meetinghouse the liberation of enslaved people in the British West Indies, and others trying to drown them out by banging pans and blowing horns.

After Putnam’s death, rumors began swirling that he was involved in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses to help slaves escape into free states and Canada. A story persisted of a tunnel leading from his basement to the railroad tracks. A tunnel matching this description was discovered when one of his houses was being demolished in the 1970s.

There are other area organizations recognizing the holiday.

Valley Society, a writing and social group for Black writers in the Pioneer Valley, hosted a more than three-hour virtual event on June 19, 2020, convening 16 Black writers from across the nation to share their work. One year later, the group has launched “Black Writers Read,” a series in which guests reflect on the year in Black culture, literary arts and existence as a way of celebrating Juneteenth. Members of Valley Society will read excerpts from work written over the past year.

The event can be watched live starting at 6 p.m. on June 19 at facebook.com/valleysociety413 and via writer Nicole M. Young’s YouTube channel, bit.ly/3iuHHTF.

Our checkered past

As African Americans, the Halls are a minority in the predominantly white Franklin County. The region, despite its progressive veneer, has not made the couple immune to racism or profiling, though they say they have built a happy, prosperous life.

The Halls moved to Greenfield in 1992. Richard grew up in Morgantown, W.Va., and Jeanne is from Springfield.

“All in all, Franklin County’s been very good,” Richard Hall, 78, said.

But he said this section of the state, much like Boston and the rest of New England, has a checkered past when it comes to race relations. In Massachusetts, freed Black men were required to give the state free roadwork a certain number of days a year at the discretion of their local selectmen. In South Kingstown, R.I., Blacks could not own horses or sheep. And throughout New England, they were allowed to use ferries under certain conditions only. In Boston, Blacks could not carry a cane — which those in power said could potentially be used as a weapon — unless they were unable to walk without one.

“That’s how afraid white men were of Black men, and I’m afraid there’s still a lot of that going around,” Richard said.

Jeanne, 74, said she has been racially profiled in public and she has seen people lock their car doors when she walks by a vehicle. Still, she said she and her husband have a wonderful family and network of friends, and have been members of All Souls Church for roughly eight years. The Halls say they were the logical choice to ring the bell on June 19.

“As far as pushback for Juneteenth, we haven’t personally seen it or heard it, but I’m sure there has been talk. Just like some folks are opposed to ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs, saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” Jeanne said. “Well, yeah, all lives do matter, but the fact of the matter is white people’s lives have always mattered, and Black people’s have not — Black and brown have not.”

The Halls say something they wish they could change is Black History Month, which critics say can be an excuse for schools to teach a watered-down version of the African American experience for only one month a year. Richard said this is one more way Blacks are thought of as “other,” rather than American.

“In your haste to be inclusive, you’ve now become even more exclusive. I don’t think of you just one month a year,” Richard said. “Don’t you see me every day?”

His wife agreed completely.

“I think if Americans would learn about our own history — the good and the bad, both — then we would be much better off. And stop having this myth of ‘America is this’ and ‘America is that,’” Jeanne said. “Yeah, America did a lot of good things. But America’s done a whole lot of bad things, too. And it needs to be taught. And it needs to be taught that the slaves and the Native Americans suffered. They suffered to make this country what it is.”


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