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Family, friendship rule the day at Roxbury homecoming

Sandra Larson | 6/25/2014, 10:59 a.m.
Thousands of people with Roxbury neighborhood ties gathered in Franklin Park for the annual Roxbury Pride Day/Juneteenth Celebration.
(l-r) Wyoma, Menelik Musa and Sheryl Royster dance during the sunny saturday afternoon at the Roxbury Pride Day/Juneteenth Celebration. (Leonardo March photo)

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Singer Margo Thunder (l) signs an autograph for Karen Williams during the Roxbury Pride Day/Juneteenth celebration at Franklin Park.

Under brilliant blue skies, thousands of people with Roxbury neighborhood ties gathered in Franklin Park Saturday for the annual Roxbury Pride Day/Juneteenth Celebration.

Around countless grills sizzling with chicken, sausages, ribs, and hamburgers, old-timers and newcomers hugged, laughed, danced, relaxed and reminisced at the gigantic picnic that has become a must-do for many since the Roxbury HomeComing Committee began organizing it in 1997.

“You get to see folks from your childhood,” said Tessil Collins, a retired Madison Park High School teacher who now runs an Internet radio station. “It’s like national family day. It’s a great event for all of us.”

Caesar Brown, 50, who grew up in the Cathedral development, and his friend Lloyd Moore of “the original” Orchard Park, attend every year. “We’ll see hundreds of people we know,” Brown said. “It’s always friendly. No trouble. Everyone is family here.”

RHCC Chairperson Evelyn Thorpe estimated the crowd at “a couple of thousand” by the early afternoon, and she continued to greet a steady stream of arrivals at the welcome tent.

Always held on the third Saturday of June and free of charge to all, the Franklin Park barbecue combines celebration of Roxbury community history and commemoration of June 19, 1865, the date the last slaves were finally notified of the Emancipation Proclamation and freed, commonly called “Juneteenth”.

Thorpe greeted friend after friend, inquiring about their family members, where they live now and their current activities. In between, she shared a few thoughts about the celebration.

“It’s a family and friends get-together,” Thorpe said. “It started out mostly older folks, but now the younger generation is starting to come. It’s really anticipated now. People have their family reunions here. They come from all over the United States and from other countries.”

Attendees echoed over and over what seemed to be common themes of the day: family, friends and neighborhood. Between greeting and hugging loved ones, loading plates with food, and dancing on the paved path in front of the DJ tent, many reported they’ve been attending since the start nearly 20 years ago, and more than one estimated they’d already seen “two or three hundred” people they knew.

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People a all ages danced as a DJ spun old school R&B.

“It’s a joyous occasion,” said state Rep. Gloria Fox, chatting with a group of longtime friends. “It’s not a political event, and there are no vendors. It’s a family outing — good, hard-working, family people.”

Singer Margo Thunder was in town from Los Angeles to do a show at Prince Hall later that night. The Boston native, Madison Park High School graduate and former member of the 1980s R & B group, 9.9, was all smiles as she greeted old friends and signed a few autographs.

Barbara Burke, who graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School over 50 years ago, said she comes year after year to see the people she grew up with in Lower Roxbury. On a bittersweet note, she spoke of how the “blue part” of the event program, a list of those who have died in the past year and earlier years, gets longer every year.

“We’re all in our 70s,” she said. “It’s important to me to see people.”

Burke had arrived at 5 a.m. By mid-afternoon she was waiting patiently for her grandchildren to tire of the sunshine and fun. She expressed hope that the historical significance of the festive event is not lost on the younger participants.

“My question is, do they just come for the food, or do they know what Juneteenth is about?” she said. “It’s not just a picnic. It’s about survival — for black people to talk about our history.”