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Juneteenth celebration founder criticizes Gainey administration over event funding

William Marshall
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
William "B" Marshall, founder of the Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration, discusses this year's event at an April 30 press conference at Point State Park.

The City of Pittsburgh is launching its own Juneteenth festival, and organizers of the region’s large-scale and long-running Juneteenth event said the city is using funds meant for them.

Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration said it is merely following proper procedure and adding to the festivities celebrating slavery’s end in the U.S., however, rather than competing with existing events.

The months-long dispute came to its latest crossroads Tuesday in City Council, when Councilor Erika Strassburger presented council members with a resolution authorizing Gainey to contract with Bounce Marketing & Events to stage a city-sponsored Juneteenth event at a cost of up to $125,000.

“We think the process was flawed,” William “B” Marshall told council. Marshall launched the Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration in 2014 under the imprimatur of his group Stop the Violence Pittsburgh.

Other speakers who addressed council Tuesday included former mayoral candidate Tony Moreno, who called the city’s alleged reallocation of funds “robbery.”

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And Martha Conley, reading a statement from the Black Political Empowerment Project, said, “We are concerned that something as important as the Juneteenth celebration, which should be a celebration for all and particularly for African Americans, is experiencing a potentially negative moment in the history of the city.”

The new, city-sponsored Juneteenth event has yet to announce a date or details. But it’s likely to run around the time of Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth.

Since 2018, that festival has been staged in Point State Park and is among Downtown’s largest annual events, with corporate sponsors including UPMC, Highmark and Dollar Bank.

In 2023, Marshall said, his event drew 50,000 people Downtown for live music by nationally touring acts, food vendors, a parade and more, and spurred millions in spending. (Marshall also organizes the Pittsburgh Black Music Festival and the Soul Food Festival; he said the three events combined for $9 million in spending here last year.)

“It’s been a great success,” said city councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, a longtime supporter of that Juneteenth festival.

While Marshall has alleged in years past that city and state officials have attempted to obstruct Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth — including a 2021 disagreement with Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration over the cost of police presence — city government has been broadly supportive of the event.

The 2023 Juneteenth was backed in part by $125,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated by the city. Marshall said city council promised him another $125,000 in ARPA funds for this year’s event. But in January, he said, he learned the city was opening a bidding process for those funds to produce a new Juneteenth event. (Councilor Kail-Smith noted that while council approved the funds, a contract was never signed for the 2024 event.)

Some might find it curious that the city would create its own event when a well-established festival marking the same holiday already draws such large crowds. But Mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño said the administration's goal is to make Juneteenth as widely celebrated a holiday as July Fourth.

“This is one of the steps that we are taking to try to get it to that level,” Montaño said. “We think there’s multiple avenues for our residents to celebrate the Juneteenth festivities, just like there are multiple celebrations of the Fourth of July in our city.”

A number of other area communities also host their own small Juneteenth celebrations, including Swissvale and Mount Lebanon.

Montaño added that the administration wants to be more open and transparent about how public money is spent. (Critics including Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.have questioned the Gainey administration’s use of no-bid contracts.)
According to public records, three companies responded to the city's call for proposals to use the Juneteenth funds, including Stop the Violence (through its fiscal sponsor, Pittsburgh’s Poise Foundation), Bounce Marketing, and Rainbow Serpent (an arts nonprofit co-founded by Pittsburgh-based artist Mikael Owunna).

Marshall said that as the creator of the region’s largest Juneteenth celebration, he thought his group was the most qualified to receive the contract.

Bounce Marketing, founded by Fantasy Zellars, is active locally and nationally. Its national credits include the NAACP and National Urban League 100-year anniversary campaigns and Walmart’s Conference Sponsorship Activations. Locally, Bounce has staged events including the past seven years of the August Wilson Birthday Celebration Block Party, in the Hill District; Gainey’s inaugural swearing-in and gala; and the city’s 2023 celebration of hip hop’s 50th anniversary.

Council is expected to discuss approval of the proposed contract with Bounce next week.

Councilor Khari Mosley said he was looking forward to learning more about the issue. Mosley, who took office in January, spoke approvingly of the fiscal transparency inherent in the request-for-proposal process, but he said he expects council’s meeting next week will provide more information about completing claims about the festival funding.

“I’m hoping all parties can come together for the betterment of Pittsburgh,” said Kail-Smith.

Marshall said the Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration will go on as scheduled June 14-16. Musical headliners include Klymaxx, Arrested Development, Kelly Price and Elle Varner.

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: