Richard A. Duffy at cemetery marker dedication, June 19, 2023Richard A. Duffy at cemetery marker dedication June 19. / Jake Bentzinger photo

UPDATED July 3: An estimated 100 people gathered in the Old Burying Ground near Robbins Library on Monday, June 19, to witness the dedication of a new memorial monument. It commemorates the lives of 21 people of color, both enslaved and free, who were buried in unmarked graves at the monument site between 1741 and 1777.

Thirty minutes later, in the nearby Winfield Robbins Memorial Garden near Town Hall, many of those same people joined in the town’s official Juneteenth festivities, where about 80 people enjoyed performances of poetry and music and listened to the words of black residents and others.

Both events were two parts of the same story -- the remembrance of death and the celebration of life, the commemoration of progress made and the acknowledgment of work yet needed to make Arlington a safer and more inclusive place for people of color.

“Juneteenth is a day about being honest about how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go,” said Eric Helmuth, chair of the Arlington Select Board, in his opening remarks at the Juneteenth celebration.

Jillian Harvey, the town's director of diversity, equity and inclusion, organized the festivities, which represent the town's third official observance of Juneteenth.

Holiday originated in 1865

“Juneteenth is now becoming something that is being recognized,” Harvey said at the town’s celebration. “But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist before.”

The holiday itself has been celebrated for much longer, ever since its origins on June 19, 1865, when a Union general announced to the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were no longer enslaved.

Only recently, however, has it gained more widespread recognition. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday, the newest established by the federal government since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Since then, the percentage of U.S. adults who say that they have “a lot” or “some” knowledge about Juneteenth has grown significantly, to 59 percent in 2022 from 37 percent in 2021, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2022.

Juneteenth celebration gets underway near Town Hall. / Jake Bentzinger photo

Starting in 2019, when she became the town's first-ever DEI official, Harvey has spearheaded many initiatives to help make Arlington a more inclusive place. These include workshops for town employees; a town equity audit; and observances of King's birthday, of Juneteenth and of the Lunar New Year, celebrated by many Asians worldwide, Americans of Asian descent and others.

To make this year's festivities a reality, Harvey coordinated primarily with community groups such as the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, the Arlington Human Rights Commission, the Arlington High School Performing Arts Department and The Black Joy Project.

Impact of The Black Joy Project

That latter effort was primarily responsible for the event’s programming, she said, which included poetry recitals and both individual and group music performances from local performers such as BBB, Bart and His Band and the Arlington Public Schools' string students orchestra. Facilitated by Medford recording artist, educator and arts advocate Stephanie McKay, The Black Joy Project describes itself on its website on Arts Arlington as a “soul-to-soul monthly gathering of black people to bring joy, build community, share our stories and reimagine our future."

The Black Joy Project was consulted concerning the language used on the new memorial monument at the Old Burying Ground, which recognizes the lives of enslaved and free people of color buried in Arlington in the 18th century, when the town was known as Menotomy. Care was taken to use the word “enslaved” rather than “slaves” to describe the people buried there -- a word choice that has become much more widely used in the recent years.

As the National Park Service explains on this page detailing the history of the Underground Railroad, many modern historians believe that to describe someone using the noun “slave” is to make their enslavement a core part of their identity and to rob them of their humanity. To describe them instead as “enslaved people” is to acknowledge that slavery was inflicted upon them against their will by outside actors and that the enslaved were forced to work without pay under threat of punishment, abuse and sudden separation from their families.

“This is a long-overdue memorial to members of our town whose lives should not be forgotten. This was a place of necessity and, candidly, a place of neglect.” -- Richard A. Duffy

“This is a long-overdue memorial to members of our community whose lives should not be forgotten,” said Richard A. Duffy, local historian and chair of the monument committee of the Arlington Historical Society, which funded and erected the monument. “This was a place of necessity and, candidly, a place of neglect.”

ACMi cameras roll ... and record history:

According to Duffy, historical documents show that at least 21 people of color were buried near the new monument, but he noted that many more could have been buried there yet were unrecorded.

Some of the deceased who were listed were not referred to using their last names or even their first names but were recorded simply by the color of their skin and the names of their enslavers.

Most of those buried there were of African descent, while some may have been multiracial, and at least one was known to have been Native American.

They were interred without coffins or caskets, wrapped only in cloth shrouds or sheets.

“We don’t know all of them by name,” Harvey said, “but we know that they were human beings.”

“We don't know all of them by name, but we know that they were human beings.” --Arlington DEI Director Jillian Harvey

“This monument is intended to inform and educate all who visit this place in an enduring and visible way about the pervasiveness of slavery in the Colonial era,” Duffy said.

Slavery in Massachusetts began in the 1630s and was abolished in 1783 following legal cases brought by people of color. One of the most prominent was Quock Walker, who is to be commemorated in nearby Lexington later this month on what was last year designated by the state government as Massachusetts Emancipation Day.

Duffy contacted YourArlington on Sunday, July 2, to elaborate, saying that he had authored the monument's inscription. “I sought simplicity in conveying the factual information while at the same time giving it a poetic feeling. In this process, I also felt it was essential to share the text in advance with [members of] The Black Joy Project to gain their reactions, and I was gratified to receive their thoughtful endorsement of how the messaging comes across.” 

After remarks from Duffy and Harvey, attendees were given sprigs of rosemary, an herb that widely symbolizes the remembrance of the dead, and invited to rub it between their fingers to release its scent. After a brief moment of silence, Duffy led the crowd in the dedication of the monument.

Between honoring the lives of those buried beneath the granite monument and Duffy's calling upon the entire community to continue the work of ending racial injustice in the town, the country and the world, the gathered crowd answered with a simple refrain: “Their lives mattered.”

See below a link to a previous YourArlington article about the work of a local student to track down these unmarked graves: 

Feb. 28, 2020: Searching for our black history: AHS intern seeks marker for slave graves

This news feature with photographs by YourArlington freelancer Jake Bentzinger was published Tuesday, June 27, 2023. It was updated Sunday, July 2, 2023, to more consistently state the title of Jillian Harvey -- and to more accurately describe the roles of Richard Duffy, the Arlington Historical Society and The Black Joy Project with regard to the memorial monument. It was updated Monday, July 3, 2023, to add links to the website of the Arlington Historical Society and to the website of a Lexington-based organization that plans to honor historic figure Quock Walker with two events on Saturday, July 8, 2023.