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Voting Rights The Focus At Delayed Pittsburgh Juneteenth Celebration

For years, Pittsburgh’s Juneteenth celebration has included a re-enactment of the Grand Jubilee of Freemen Parade, a festive 1870 march Downtown commemorating passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave Black men the right to vote.

2020 Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29. Downtown

It was a right that quickly became impossible to exercise for many around the nation, because of Jim Crow laws and other forms of suppression that the federal government didn’t address until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Pittsburgh’s Juneteenth festivities are different this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic. But with the right to vote as much in the news as ever, the scaled-down event highlights voting-rights struggles past and present.

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day the last Black Americans learned they were no longer enslaved. As organized by the group Stop the Violence Pittsburgh, Juneteenth grew to a four-day round of parades, concerts, panel discussions and more, Downtown, all in June.

Last year's Juneteenth events drew 19,000, said Stop the Violence head William Marshall. This year’s was to be the biggest yet, including forums on both Black men’s and women’s suffrage, the latter of which is marking its centennial.

Marshall didn’t want to give up in-person festivities entirely, even as the coronavirus delayed the celebration. But the 2020 Juneteenth is down to a single Saturday afternoon.

It begins at 11 a.m. with a service at St. Benedict the Moor Church, in the Hill District. However, the masked and socially distanced version of the Grand Jubilee of Freemen Parade that was to follow has been postponed due to concerns about the weather, Marshall said.

A planned voting-rights forum will go on as scheduled, indoors, at St. Benedict the Moor. The masked-and-distanced event features an appearance by Samaria Rice. She’s the mother of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy killed by police in 2014. 

“She’s going to talk basically about how Tamir Rice would have been 18 this year … and how it’s very important that he would have been able to vote this year in the upcoming elections, and how people can’t take voting for granted,” said Marshall. “It’s very important that we mobilize and try to get out the vote and make changes in society.”

The forum comes amid deep concern over such issues as whether the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service can handle this November’s expected flood of mail-in ballots, even as President Trump works to raise doubts about the security of the process.

The event also includes live entertainment, including a performance by gospel singer Koryn Hawthorne.

The event will be livestreamed on the Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration’s Facebook page.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm