African-American Heritage Celebrated Countywide This Summer
Festival co-Chairman Don Quinn Kelley, left, Ivan Newton of the Samuel Harrison Society and Mary McGinnis and Meghan Whilden of the city of Pittsfield at the Lift Ev'ry Voice announcement.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Downstreet Arts' first Thursday in June this year coincides with the launch of the biennial countywide celebration of African-American heritage in Berkshire County.
Lift Ev'ry Voice — a festival of artistic endeavors and historical events — brings a World Music Dance Party to Main Street and a reading of civil rights activist Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July Address on June 20.
The festival was founded three years ago by Shirley Edgerton and Eugenie Sills as a way to give voice to a significant element of the county's history and culture that ranges from Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman who sued for her liberty to the Rev. Samuel Harrison of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry to historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois to astronaut Stephanie Wilson.
The festival selected Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Gallery 51 on Main Street to announce this summer's schedule of events and to emphasis the countywide collaboration.
"MCLA was very involved in the first festival. We wanted to honor the fact that North Adams was a great part of the festival," said Edgerton, a community activist and residential program director for the Department of Developmental Services, and co-chairman of the festival with Don Quinn Kelley. "We're going to be talking about folks who are local heroes as well as those who have risen to national prominence."
The season officially kicks off on June 19 with a performance at Jacob's Pillow in Becket by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and continues through Aug. 4, with a postseason reading of "For Colored Girls" by teenaged girls from the Rites of Passage and Empowerment Program based in Pittsfield on Aug. 19.
Both the year and the date of the festival launch have historic significance, said Kelley. This is the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but those who were enslaved understood it was freedom on paper.
It was June 19, 1865, when the slaves in Galveston, Texas, were freed by the Union Army that would eventually become a worldwide commemoration known as Juneteenth.
"Lift Ev'ry Voice means America was not free until African-Americans were free," said Kelley.
The festival begins at Jacob's Pillow, which had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and includes a walk on June 22 from the Rev. Samuel Harrison's homesite in Pittsfield to Second Congregational Church where he had been pastor for decades.
"It's a walk we want everyone to come to," said Kelley. "If you believe in freedom come, if you belive in faith come, so that as a community, we will be saying we believe in faith and freedom."
The Harrison House at 82 Third St. in Pittsfield has been undergoing a restoration over the past four years and will open to the public this summer. Harrison joined the legendary 54th after its fatal attack on Battery Wagner (as protrayed in the film "Glory"). He returned to Pittsfield in 1872 to once again lead Second Congregational until his death in 1900.
Other events include poet Nikki Giovanni holding workshops and performances in late June; the exhibit "Portraits of Berkshire County Elders" at the Lichtenstein Gallery in Pittsfield through July; spoken word poetry and R&B singer Bettye LaVette at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts on July 6; a free barbecue and music at The Mount with jazz musicians Craig Harris and the Tailgaters (food by Mad Jacks) on July 11; a baseball musical at Williamstown Theatre Festival from July 24-Aug. 3 that includes a postperformance talk on African-Americans and local baseball history; and a July 27 performance of the Olga Dunn Dance Company in Great Barrington.
Kelley said there had been questions during the first festival of how it was going to be funded.
"We're going to be a community together and we're going to ask people to be a community with us," he said he responded.
To that effort, the festival has forged partnerships with a number of venues including the Samuel Harrison Society, The Mount, MCLA, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williams Collge, Mass MoCA, local religious institutions and the cities of North Adams and Pittsfield, among others.
"I think we're going to have a great summer, a great event, and the city could not be happier to be engaged with Lift Ev'ry Voice," said Mayor Richard Alcombright.
See the full schedule of events here.
Tags: arts festival, Berkshire County, heritage, local history,