Juneteenth celebrations are expanding across N.H. this year
The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire will host expanded Juneteenth celebrations this year, with festivities running June 10-20. This year’s theme is “The Gift: Celebrating African American Public Arts,” featuring Black artists bringing their visual arts, dance and music to New Hampshire.
“We’ve slowly been growing it year by year,” said Gina Bowker, program manager of the Black Heritage Trail.
Juneteenth in Portsmouth has been a one-day event at the African Burying Ground Memorial Park for years. In 2021, the events took place over the course of three days. This year, there are many events over a 10-day period. The federal holiday is June 19.
“We're celebrating African American public arts, which I feel are very underrepresented in general,” Bowker said.
One of the festival's events is a workshop and the creation of a public art mural called "The Art of Erasure."
"The Black and African American population in New Hampshire has been erased and not very many people know that,” Bowker said. “We get people who come into our tours all the time and say, 'Oh, I never knew that there was slavery in the North, I never knew that happened here in Portsmouth.'"
“The North is not innocent of the things that happened to Black people and African Americans,” Bowker said.
Najee Brown, a local actor, director, playwright and founder of the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) theater company Theatre for the People, echoed the importance of Juneteenth in educating people about Black arts and culture.
“Yes, our history is troublesome, but America is still a great country and it’s that history and learning that history, and realizing that history, it's that that will prevent us from repeating it,” Brown said. “We have to honor every contribution of every race and every people who helped make up what this country is.”
Beyond the arts, celebrations of the holiday like the Black Heritage Trail's bring awareness of what still needs to be done.
“Juneteenth is the real American Independence Day,” said Brown. “Not until everyone with a beating heart is free in this country can we sing a song of freedom.”
Starting off with a movie in the park
To start it all off, BHTNH has partnered with the Prescott Park Arts Festival to present Pixar’s movie "Soul," as part of its summer-long movie series. The movie on Friday, June 10 begins at dusk, approximately 8:30 p.m., in Prescott Park in Portsmouth, and is free and open to the public.
Remembering the first African American regiment formed in the North
On Saturday June 11, a guided bus tour will travel to Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire, to see the home of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial and learn about the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The tour will be led by Newton Rose, lead interpretive ranger at Saint-Gaudens as well as PhD candidate, Dana Green, who is currently a Public History and Art Fellow at the park.
Green explained the memorial pays homage to first African American regiment formed in the North, out of Boston, Massachusetts. In 1863, the regiment, led by abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, fought a battle at Fort Wagner, which it lost. However, the regiment led to the enlistment of almost 200,000 African Americans in the Union Army who fought in the Civil War between 1863 and 1865, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
The tour will also provide an opportunity to see Augustus Saint-Gaudens' home and his sculptures as well as a discussion with Kathryn Grover who wrote a special history report on the regiment.
“I think it's important to study African American history because it is American history,” Green said. “And I think that so often, it's been left out, and we need to study it and see how it's a part of the overall story of America.”
A bus will pick up attendees in Portsmouth and Concord to take them to the park. The registration deadline has passed, but find more information at blackheritagetrailnh.org/juneteenth-celebration-2022.
A discussion panel about 'Bearing Witness: Black Art in Public Spaces'
A discussion panel will be held on Friday, June 17 in Manchester at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. The panel, titled “Bearing Witness: Black Art in Public Spaces,” will feature a multitude of artists including Sam Collins III, Juneteenth historian and public art creator, Galveston, Texas; Joel Christian-Gill, graphic novelist and cartoonist, of Derry.; Richard Haynes, artist, educator and visual storyteller, of Portsmouth; Cecilia Ulibarri, president and co-founder Positive Street Art, Nashua; and Manuel “Phelany” Ramirez, artist-in-residence and co-founder, Positive Street Art, Nashua.
A concert with the Howard University Gospel Choir
As part of the Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, the Howard Gospel Choir will perform a concert, “Let it Shine: The Howard Gospel Choir Sings The Gospel” at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.
The Howard Gospel Choir is unique in that it is the first collegiate choir of its kind in the world, comprising more than 70 students, alumni and community members of Howard University in Washington, D.C. The concert is at 4 p.m. and tickets are available at themusichall.org.
A performance by 'Theatre for the People'
On June 19, the official holiday, Najee Brown, a local actor, director, playwright, will present a dance performance by his company, Theatre for the People, which he founded in December. The group is one of the first BIPOC theater companies in the area.
“Our goal is to give theater back to the people,” said Brown. “I want to be able to give these tools of theater to youth and to all people so that they can create social change."
The free Juneteenth performance will take place at the African Burying Ground Memorial at 2 p.m. in Portsmouth and will include contemporary dance, tap, hip hop and step. The event will be live and livestreamed.
Brown explained that step began during slavery. There are a few urban legends about the exact use of stepping among enslaved people, but one of the most popular is that when slave owners took away their drums, enslaved people used stepping to send signals as a way of communicating with each other, Brown said.
“I think any opportunity to celebrate Black people and their contributions to this country is needed, necessary and is honorable,” Brown said. “We built this country up and if it wasn’t for our contributions to this country, America would not be where it is today.”
In addition to Theatre for the People, Brown has created the first community step team in the Seacoast area, which features a diversity of people among many ages and races.
A public art mural in Portsmouth
The celebrations will culminate on June 20, the federal holiday, with a community art project, "The Art of Erasure: Gone But Never Forgotten," led by award-winning public artist, Napoleon Jones-Henderson. Participants will contribute to painting a large mural on a Portsmouth street. As the painting fades, its erasure will be video-documented. This workshop symbolizes the erasure of Black people from American history, but the importance their impact has had and that we must recognize it. The painting of the mural is free and open to the public 8 a.m. in the parking lot at People's United Bank, 325 State St., Portsmouth. There are two workshops leading up to the painting on June 16 and 17.
“Lets turn this moment into a movement,” said Brown. “The only way we can continue the movement is to show up.”
Learn more about the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire's Juneteenth celebration at blackheritagetrailnh.org/juneteenth-celebration-2022.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Napoleon Jones-Henderson. This piece was updated on June 13 to correct the error.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. Seacoast Media, a partner in the collaborative, was the editorial director for this story. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.