Jun. 24—ANDOVER — It was like "hitting the lottery" that Andover Baptist Church's inaugural Juneteenth celebration coincided with the day marking the end of slavery being solidified as a national holiday, said Denise Wynn.
"It's more than what we wished for, but it's what we prayed for," she said Saturday with a smile on her face.
Wynn, who is in charge of missions ministry for the church, started planning the celebration with other organizers from the church well before the day was signed into law as a federal holiday this past week. They wanted to create an educational event that would "celebrate our culture, for us to feel proud about it and not have it hidden."
"We don't have a pretty history," she said. "But instead of keeping it hidden, let's own it, recognize it, heal through it and celebrate it."
The Andover Baptist Church kicked off the celebration by raising the Juneteenth flag and the choir singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is often referred to as the Black national anthem.
Wynn invited more than a dozen people, including local leaders and parishioners, to speak and play music throughout the day. Black vendors and local organizations also set up informational booths for the more than 100 Andover residents who stopped by throughout the day.
She hopes to make it a annual event, and was encouraged by the crowd coming out with open ears to learn, reflect and celebrate, she said.
Laura McVeigh, an Andover mother of two, brought her 4 and 6-year-olds to Saturday's celebration because it seemed like a great opportunity to teach and celebrate with other locals, she said.
"I think now we know we need to push beyond a 'color blind' approach and not seeing people's color, but instead be proactive when teaching our children about race and history," McVeigh said.
Genithia Hogges sang three different "slave songs because we're celebrating their emancipation and it's important to sing some of the songs they probably sang," she said. "Negro spirituals are important because they are the bedrock of American music."
She choose to sing "Oh Freedom" particularly because of the line, "before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave" because these spirituals were very much an act of rebellion, she said.
Local leaders talked about gains Andover has made, especially over the past year since protests erupted across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Andover High School teacher Ralph Bledsoe recalled the hundreds of people in Shawsheen Square last year when Andover hosted a protest in honor of Floyd.
"I personally felt so supported that I tear up when thinking about it," he said.
He recalled the following Juneteenth event hosted by Merrimack Valley Black and Brown voices, where people talked about their struggles being in the minority in a majority-white town. Then he commended town officials for taking action by creating a diversity and inclusion committee to implement change in town.
That work going on throughout the town will flow more freely into the schools, said new Superintendent Magda Parvey, who officially takes helm of the district in July.
In her first public speech she promised to have those "courageous conversations that lead to growth, and most importantly healing."
State Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover agreed there's still work to be done.
"It's not just about history, It's about the ongoing struggle to recognize freedom. Juneteenth is a stark reminder of the gap between promised freedom, and the ongoing struggle to make freedom and equality a reality," she said focusing on how education in schools about race is necessary.
State Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, talked about how Lawrence General Hospital's financial strains are part of systemic racism in healthcare.
"That's not making a more perfect union," he said.
Recognizing Juneteenth as a federal independence celebration is a reminder "we are all in this together, and we need to fight to make the world a better place that has opportunity, where people feel they are equal and we have room to grow," Finegold said.
State Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, reminded the crowd "hate is not inherited, it is taught."
He has hope and "great confidence as younger generations are speaking up and older generations are reflecting."