St. Katharine Drexel parishioner leads Boston Juneteenth celebration
"The Lord assigns me to these organizations," explains Jumaada Abdal-Khallaq Henry Smith. A-K. Henry Smith is a busy Catholic, both at her home parish of St. Katharine Drexel in Dorchester and in the Greater Boston community. However, at the heart of everything she does is her faith. She is led by prayer to answer God's call. She does nothing merely to be busy, but is Spirit-led.
For the past 10 years, her response to the Spirit has included serving as chairperson of the Boston Juneteenth Committee (BJC). The celebration grew out of the Juneteenth awareness of Ben Haith and Ralph Browne. Browne, a well-known community figure, decided to gather a small group of people, including A-K. Henry Smith, to formalize the mission of educating people about Juneteenth as well as the existence of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) Museum in Boston. The group represents people with different skills, mindsets, and talents. After Browne's death in 2012, it was unanimous that A-K. Henry Smith would serve as chairperson of the committee, a role she has faithfully served in ever since.
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Observance Day, celebrates the "end of slavery" in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read General Order #3, announcing to the 250,000 enslaved people there that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln, had taken effect on Jan. 1,1863, but news did not reach the enslaved people of Texas until the arrival of General Granger two and a half years later.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart ... and he will make straight your path," (Proverbs 3:5, 6) is the Scripture that remains dear to A-K. Henry Smith's heart as she continues to answer God's call. From her younger days in Texas, where a white coworker called out the word "Juneteenth" as a derogatory slur to her as she passed by, to returning to Boston to serve as the chairperson of the BJC, and all the years in between, her path could only be known by God.
''I grew up hearing the stories of Juneteenth from older generations," says A-K. Henry Smith. "People in Texas would get a new outfit and go 'to the country' to celebrate with a huge reunion."
While attending Law School in Texas in the late 1970s, she worked with a group to march and support the movement to help Juneteenth become a recognized holiday. In 1980, Texas became the first state in the country to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday.
"God took me and directed my path," she explains. "It was like God was prepping me to one day be doing some of the work that Mr. Browne was doing. We decided that on June 19th, no matter what day it fell on, we would reverence June 19th," says A-K. Henry Smith.
The committee celebrated its first Juneteenth Emancipation Observance on June 19, 2011, and has done so every year, no matter what. Even during the height of COVID, when the group had to shift gears and go virtual, the celebration continued.
On June 19, 2022, the 12th Annual Juneteenth Emancipation Observance, presented by the Boston Juneteenth Committee and the National Center of Afro-American Artists, will be held, including a small parade beginning at 1 p.m. This year's theme is "Purposeful Action Anchored in Truth." The parade ends at the NCAAA Museum located at 300 Walnut Avenue in Roxbury. Their grounds open at 2:30 p.m. for fun and activities for all. The formal 90-minute program will begin at 4 p.m. The day includes re-enactors from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (the second African American unit to fight in the Civil War), a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, keynote speaker U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins, entertainment, the Spoken Word and much more. Boston Neighborhood Network (BNN) will broadcast the event live.
"I know the importance of Juneteenth because it's our history," explains A-K. Henry Smith. "It's not just a 'Black' thing. It's American History. We need to know about it. We need to contemplate and concentrate. You know how during the Celebration of Mass we say 'it is right and just? The onus is on us to do what God tells us is right and just." She encourages people of all races to make a point to honor this important moment in American History.
After viewing the movie "Harriet" about the life of Harriet Tubman, A-K. Henry Smith found the movie inspiring and sees parallels to the ongoing struggle against racism. "When you look at the drive of that woman and what God called her to do and what she did ... Black people ran, Harriet had a gun but along the way white people helped put them in the wagon and bring them to safety. We worked together and that's what it's going to take."
Although slavery has ended, the sin of racism persists and A-K. Henry Smith feels there is more work to be done by our Catholic Church. Although documents on the sin of racism, such as "On Racial Harmony" in 1963, "Brothers and Sisters to Us" in 1979 and "Open Wide Our Hearts" in 2018, have tried to address racism, it is time to directly attack this sin. "This is wrong," she states. "The Church has to roll up its sleeves, even more so, and sit at the table with Black Catholics like myself and have a real conversation. If we really mean it, we must do something about it."
As an African descendant of enslaved people, she can trace a side of her family tree back eight generations, to identify "Mama Charlotte" who herself remembers, at the age of four, coming over on a boat. A-K. Henry Smith points out that African descendants of enslaved people still fight for acceptance to this day. "We had a language," she says. "We were stripped of our language. We do not have a common language. It vexes my spirit."
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, creating Juneteenth as an official federal holiday.
"To see Juneteenth an official holiday is music to my ears. It is fuel to my soul. To see it listed as a federal holiday, states can't fudge it. To be a part of the events in Texas and then to come home and be a part of Boston Juneteenth and see it come to fruition means the world to me."
"Whatever I do, I pray that I am spiritually led to be a part of it," says A-K. Henry Smith. "I try to literally go to God in prayer first. When God sends you to do something and you say 'send me,' you are blessed."