Today is the first time in Massachusetts history that the state is formally observing Juneteenth as a state holiday. It commemorates the day the last enslaved Black Americans were emancipated in Texas: June 19th, 1865. Yesterday, President Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday. For years, Juneteenth has been celebrated informally in Massachusetts.

In 2017, Lynn’s Nicole McClain saw a need in her community for representation for Black Americans and formed the North Shore Juneteenth Association. McClain joined Aaron Schachter on Morning Edition today to discuss the meaning of the holiday. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Aaron Schachter: Nicole, you grew up in Lynn, but you've said that you remember your family traveling down to Franklin Park in Boston to celebrate Juneteenth when you were a child. And those memories are part of what prompted you to create this organization. How did that get started?

Nicole McClain: I would go to the Franklin Park every year to celebrate Juneteenth with my family — barbecue, we’d have tables out and we’d listen to different presentations and songs and dance. But it got to the point where I just wanted to have it closer to home. I was reaching out to local leaders to see if we could get something going so that we would be celebrating Juneteenth on the North Shore.

A Juneteenth flag is raised on June 17 in Everett.
Courtesy of Nicole McClain

And then when my son was 16 years old, he experienced police brutality. And that really enhanced my need to share positive images of Black Americans in on the North Shore, because I feel like there's not a lot going on the North Shore of Massachusetts to expose black American culture to all other cultures.

Schachter: I wonder if as a kid, you recognized that you were celebrating a holiday that most people did not know was a holiday.

McClain: Right. As a child, we just were happy to have the barbecues, listening to music, we were happy to eat, you know what I mean? And enjoy just the just the fun of the holiday. We didn't realize — well, I didn't realize until I got older, that it was something specifically for Black Americans that we are doing every year.

Schachter President Biden has now signed into law June 19th as a federal holiday, Juneteenth. What does that mean to you?

McClain: I think it's amazing. It's a hard-won fight. A lot of people have been working toward getting this accomplished. There's an old woman named Opal Lee, she walks to Washington with the intention of helping to make Juneteenth a national holiday, a federal holiday. And I think that it's just amazing. And I'm happy that they are seeing the fruit of this labor. It's amazing.

Schachter: Given all that's happened over the past year, I wonder if you think that declaring Juneteenth a national holiday can actually help the conversation here in America.

McClain: I've always felt that even in creating the Northshore Juneteenth Association, I've always felt that the Juneteenth holiday is a springboard from which to start something. Everybody likes to come together and celebrate and eat and sing and be merry together. I would like to use the holiday as a way to start creating more of those conversations and more of the systemic change that we really need.

Schachter: It's a lot easier to get to know someone if you're breaking bread with them.

McClain: Right, exactly.

Schachter: Given that and all you've said, how will you be celebrating this year?

McClain: Oh, my goodness. We've had three flag raisings in different communities. We've done one in Wakefield, one in Beverly and one in Lynn. Right now I’m on my way to Everett to do a flag raising there. And we're also having [an] actual live Juneteenth celebration at the Lynn Museum on Saturday. There are things going on all over Massachusetts. So it's really exciting.

Schachter: Are you finding a lot of people showing up for these events or at least more than you've seen before?

I've always felt that the Juneteenth holiday is a springboard from which to start something.
-Nicole McClain

McClain: Yes, it's definitely an increase in the number of attendees at each flag raising. I believe Beverly, for its first flag raising yesterday, had about one hundred people there.

Schachter: Are you hoping this will be celebrated as kind of a barbecue sort of holiday or more of a reflective kind of day?

McClain: I think I would like it to be both. Because, my memories of Franklin Field are people would bring out their grills, they would set up tables and chairs — we haven't been able to do anything like that on the North Shore yet. But I would like to combine that barbecue feel, sitting around and laughing and joking with each other with a message as well. So I would like to have presentations, people speaking, just keep people educated and engaged in the full process.