For Organizer of First June 15th Celebration in Attleboro, It Was a Year of Change | Local News
In the past year or so, it has gone from being a mostly family celebration to a local event, to an official city and state celebration, to the country’s last federal holiday adopted at wide margins in Congress and enacted Thursday by President Joe Biden.
For Ashley Stewart, Juneteenth’s evolution as a national celebration of freedom for black Americans has mirrored its own journey over the past year – a journey that has cost friends, won allies and helped transform a young entrepreneur and activist.
Stewart, now 29, hosted the first June 17 celebration in Attleboro last year following the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody, and a series of protests in Attleboro and other local communities.
“I put this together with six days. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve found in that time, ”said Stewart, a North Attleboro native who grew up in a Métis family.
This event took her to a seat on the city’s Human Rights Council and a year of building on the success of the first June 17 celebration. It did not come without cost.
“I lost so-called friends, friends on social media, people I went to school with showing their true colors,” she said, adding: “It sparked conflict even with family members. “
This year’s celebration, scheduled for 11 am to 4 pm Saturday at Capron Park, “is going to be even bigger,” she said. It will also be his last in Attleboro. She and her family – her husband and two children aged 5 and 10 – have moved to Providence where she plans to continue working for social justice and equity.
Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of Union troops in Texas on June 19, 1865, bringing with them the news of the end of the Civil War as well as the end of slavery. This was more than a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General US Grant at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia, and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation of ’emancipation, declaring that those enslaved in the rebel states would be “henceforth and forever free”.
Six months later, in January 1865, Congress would ratify the 13th Amendment, officially abolishing slavery throughout the United States.
Stewart, who graduated from North Attleboro High School and worked as a cosmetologist, told Sun Chronicle reporter Kayla Canne after the success of the Juneteenth celebration last year, “I feel like I tried. to be put in boxes all my life, but I never fit in a single box, ”she said. “For me, it’s just about being a human being. At the end of the day, are you a good human being? All those other boxes should be thrown out the window.
Stewart said at the time that she wanted to create a culture on the local activist scene where everyone has a place at the table – as long as they are working for change.
Since then, she has been appointed by Mayor Paul Héroux to the city’s rights council. She attended the Neighbors in Dialogue virtual meetings – a program launched by the Attleboro Public Library last summer to spark community conversations about race and racism.
“It’s a place to really immerse yourself in listening, learning and sharing,” said Stewart at the time. “It’s a haven of peace and there are people from everywhere. Some people just don’t know or understand, and that’s okay because it’s a place we can talk about it.
The council partnered with Reverend Cheryl Harris, pastor of the First Baptist Church “and various churches and black members of this community and neighboring communities.”
“It’s amazing, it’s growing,” she said.
This also includes the involvement of public schools.
“The superintendent, assistants and directors are all aware of these calls,” she said. “We are able to connect a lot of points. She hopes schools will recognize Juneteenth’s story as well.
“I even had young high school students contact me. I invited them to come and volunteer… ”she said. “The ball has started rolling since last year.”
As for her, 2021 was “all about growth”.
As a Métis woman, she says, “There is no box to put in, and I will not sit inside one. I spread my wings, I feel like a phoenix in a way.
While much of the past year has been tragic, Stewart adds, “What has blossomed and grown from the ashes is something I am very grateful for.”
Since moving, she is no longer a member of the local rights council, although she still attends meetings as a liaison officer. She hopes to partner with the Black Lives Matter movement in Rhode Island in the future.
“I’m happy to go there and stay with them. It’s so beautiful to me, ”she said.
Stewart says there are a lot of allies in town and on the rights council and people of color have those who will fight for them.
“I feel like I left Attleboro in good hands.”