More than 150 years have passed since the Union Army informed enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, that they were free — an event that would come to be celebrated annually on that day as Juneteenth.
The history behind the anniversary, now observed as an official holiday in Massachusetts, is bittersweet. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed slavery almost three years prior. But Texas’ remote location and relatively low presence of Union soldiers, who were tasked with enforcing the ban on slavery, meant the news did not reach enslaved people as soon as it should have.
RonAsia Rouse, MPH, program manager for Health Equity in the Brigham’s Center for Community Health and Health Equity (CCHHE), can’t help but see a connection to how outreach and education around COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccination efforts have played out in communities of color.
“In light of the disproportionate effects COVID has had on Black and brown people, I think it’s important to recognize the history and legacy of how information and resources are shared with communities of color,” Rouse said. “Over a century after the events that inspired Juneteenth, this inequity still occurs, and it’s one that we know has devastating consequences.”
In that spirit, Rouse and several colleagues across Mass General Brigham (MGB) are collaborating to organize “Don’t Be the Last to Know: Information, Education and Vaccinations,” an outreach event at the city’s Juneteenth celebration in Roxbury’s Nubian Square on Saturday, June 19, noon–4 p.m.
The event will offer attendees access to COVID-19 testing, vaccine information, other educational materials, care kits with masks and hand sanitizers, and other giveaways. Attendees will also be able to receive vaccinations if they wish (no appointment, ID or insurance necessary). The Brigham’s Talent Acquisition team in Human Resources will also be on-site to discuss potential employment opportunities at the Brigham.
The first 100 people to stop by the tent will receive a free meal, sponsored by Black-owned businesses in Nubian Square. The tent will also feature a trivia game, focusing on facts about COVID-19 and Black history, in addition to raffles for gift cards to local businesses.
The event’s leadership team includes Rouse, Cindy Diggs and Damien Leach of MGH, Geneva Gordon of MGB.
The team is partnering with several community organizations — including Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, Roxbury Main Streets and We Got Us — to ensure the offerings are aligned with what would be most useful to residents and local businesses, Rouse said.
“It’s important that we use our resources to highlight, amplify and collaborate with the organizations that have been in the community doing this work, rather than trying to overshadow them,” she said. “These organizations know the community members and understand what they need.”
In addition to the Juneteenth event, the Brigham’s community vaccination team will continue to expand community-based vaccine availability by hosting mobile clinics at Brookside Community Health Center (Tuesdays, 8:30 a.m.–noon), the Egleston Square YMCA (Tuesdays, 4–7 p.m.) and Church of the Holy Tabernacle in Dorchester (Thursdays, 8:30 a.m.–noon), with additional sites in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan being planned.
“While we are currently focused on providing COVID vaccines, we are eager to identify other ways that our mobile van could meet the needs of our community,” said Mimi Jolliffe, executive director of Brookside Community Health Center.