Forty-six years ago, Carson Beach became a symbol of racial segregation in Boston, engulfed in a race riot. Saturday, celebrants rasied the Juneteenth flag there to honor the newly established federal holiday recognizing the end of Black enslavement after the Civil War.

“If you know the history of Carson Beach, you’ll know for years that we struggled to be accepted there,” said Aja Jackson, one of the event organizers. “We want everyone to feel at peace at Carson Beach.”

Carson Beach was the site of a violent racial clash in 1975. What initially started out as a peaceful protest held by Black demonstrators became a brawl between Black and white residents over school desegregation and other boiling community tensions.

For Maria Henderson, who was born in Boston in 1950 and has been celebrating Juneteenth for many years, the federal holiday announcement Thursday feels like a monumental step.

“When I grew up we didn't go to South Boston and people from South Boston did not come to Roxbury and Dorchester,'' said Henderson. “Now for us to be here just integrated as one happy family, it's a wonderful thing and a step in the right direction.”

The gathering at Carson Beach was preceded by another at Copley Square. Both events were put on by the New Democracy Coalition. They were part of the city’s many Juneteenth celebrations to mark the anniversary of enslaved people in Galveston, Tex. learning that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. Massachusetts passed a law last year declaring Juneteenth a state holiday; Congress made it a federal holiday last week.

Former State Rep. Gloria Fox first introduced a bill in the Massachusetts State House to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday in 2007. Saturday, she addressed a crowd in Copley Square.

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Former State Rep. Gloria Fox speaks during a Juneteenth celebration on Boston's Copley Square, June 19, 2021.
Lex Weaver/ The Scope: Boston for GBH News

“They knew, even then, that it was going to come to pass and that this country was scared together about the truth that we’ve known all of our lives,” said Fox. “That all of us must be free. And freedom ain’t free...we’re working on it.”

Celebrants enjoyed free food and t-shirt giveaways and vendors sold handmade jewelry and print t-shirts. The crowd basked in bright sunshine and sounds of local artists like guitarist James Scott Henderson, who performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem.

“Juneteenth is the celebration of freedom itself,” said James Ladarrell, a 48-year-old Boston resident who attended the event at Copley Square. “Therefore, Juneteenth is not a Black holiday. It is a holiday in the United States of America. And now it’s in the books of the United States.”

Ladarrell acknowledged the struggles that have preceded the delayed recognition of the holiday. “I just feel honored. I feel honored because so many people shed their blood.”

Some celebrants said Juneteenth is not only a day to reflect on the past, but also a time to focus on work that still needs to be done to achieve racial justice.

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Jahnyah James sits on her father’s shoulders as she eagerly waits for her older sister, Treasjah’s performance with the Boston Children’s Chorus during the "One Night In Boston" Juneteenth Celebration in Nubian Square, June 18, 2021.
Lex Weaver/WGBH via The Scope: Boston

“It's symbolic in a way, but there’s no true action,” said Mobile Burrell, a Roxbury resident and volunteer for King Boston, one of the organizations that sponsored Juneteenth events. “I think recognizing the actual day similar to how they recognize July 4th as a federal holiday, at least acknowledges the importance of Juneteenth. But it's important to not just settle and keep looking for more changes that need to happen in this country.”

Friday night, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker stopped by the “One Night in Boston” Juneteenth kickoff to hand the state’s first proclamation recognizing the Juneteenth holiday to the executive director of King Boston, Imari Paris Jeffries.

“I’m here because it’s important,” Baker told GBH News. “And it’s about time!”

Lex Weaver is the editor-in-chief of The Scope: Boston, a digital magazine operated by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism and focused on telling stories of justice, hope and resilience in Greater Boston. She is also a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. Taylor Blackley is a reporter at The Scope: Boston and a Northeastern graduate student. Avantika Panda is a Boston-based freelance journalist and part-time staff reporter for The Scope: Boston.