Negro Election Black Celebration Day

Salem United President Doreen Wade holds up a proclamation enacted by Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll in the flag raising ceremony of the Black American Heritage Flag at the Riley Plaza during the Negro Election Black Celebration Day in 2021.

SALEM — The mission of Salem United is getting some muscle power from Beacon Hill.

Senate Bill 2703, titled “an act establishing the third Saturday in July as Negro Election Day” — which was co-sponsored by Salem Sen. Joan Lovely — cleared the Senate on Feb. 17 and is now moving to the House of Representatives, where fellow co-sponsor Salem Rep. Paul Tucker has pledged to fight for the bill and Gov. Charlie Baker has committed to signing it.

The Salem Black Picnic and Negro Election Day have been the singular mission of Salem United since the organization formed and took over the annual Black Picnic in 2016. Prior to that, the tradition went back 275 years as a largely grassroots gathering each year. Negro Election Day served in 1741 as an opportunity to vote for a governor or “king” of the Black community to fight for and represent it.

The bill also honors Quock Walker, an American slave who fought in court for his freedom in 1781.

“We’ve started seeing a lot of initiatives to start to recognize the history of slavery, and this is a big piece that happened here in the Northeast,” Lovely said. “The Statehouse has a vision of having a permanent display here in Salem, because the Black Picnic day has occurred in Salem on the third Saturday in July (for many years).”

The event was initially held in Lynn, on the banks of the Saugus River by the Salem and Lynn border. It moved to the Willows in 1880 and has been held there since.

The bill strives “to highlight and honor the last several hundred years of emancipation of slaves, and the history that has happened here in Massachusetts,” Lovely said.

Doreen Wade, president of Salem United, sees Lovely’s effort not so much as putting Negro Election Day on the calendar, but as giving a big boost to her organization’s work.

“It isn’t just her supporting; it’s her building and helping us grow. She’s bringing in more people, more supporters, everything,” Wade said. “It’ll legitimize the history, and without her, we wouldn’t have been able to legitimize the history.”

With each passing year, Salem United has been stepping up its efforts beyond running the annual picnic. That includes a Negro Election Day exhibit at Hamilton Hall that launched last year and ran into the summer. Lovely recalled seeing Baker at the exhibit, which is when he committed to signing the bill, she explained.

Tucker, meanwhile, is eager to get his hands on it as well, he said.

“Salem United has really done a great job in bringing some of these things to light,” Tucker said. “It was such a big deal in history that never got attention. I think that most people know the Black Picnic of Salem and know it takes place but they didn’t know the history. One of the things we found during the search on this, the self-governance the African American community had for hundreds of years... it was fascinating.”

Pair that with the recent surge of Juneteenth events honoring another piece of history that goes back more than a century, something else Tucker said he knew nothing about despite his long career in civic service.

“The recognition here is bringing to light something we should’ve looked at and recognized a long time ago,” Tucker said. “I’ll make sure everyone knows what it is and the importance of it.”

Of course, Salem United’s mission won’t be completely fulfilled by a bill passing on Beacon Hill, according to Wade.

“The next thing is building the Black Heritage Center and museum, where Negro Election Day will be held, and more Black history on Salem and Essex County will be able to be stored,” Wade said. “The event (Negro Election Day specifically) will be able to tell the history, and we’ll still have families grilling and still have the parade and vendors. But we’re also educating.”

And that, Wade said, is what the Black Picnic is all about.

“We’re also going to do voter registration. We’re also going to do voter education,” she said. “We’re going to build these around what the history and family values are.”

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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