It’s one of America’s oldest holidays, and among its most historically resonant: On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved African Americans learned they were emancipated. Juneteenth has been celebrated every year since, and 46 states and the District of Columbia now recognize the holiday – including, as of just weeks ago, Pennsylvania.
This year’s Juneteenth is also notable for other reasons, said William Marshall, who has organized the weekend of activities since 2013; he's also the founder of local advocacy group Stop the Violence.
For one thing, it’s the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in North America; they came as chattel to Jamestown, the property of English colonists. And closer to home, it’s been one year since the death of East Pittsburgh teenager Antwon Rose II, who was shot in the back by a police officer while fleeing a car that had been involved in a drive-by shooting on June 19, 2018, which was also the date of last year's Juneteenth.
In addition to the usual parade and outdoor festivals, this year’s Juneteenth includes a nondenominational religious service in Point State Park honoring Rose.
The service, at noon Saturday, involves a dozen religious leaders from multiple faiths who will “try to heal the city, try to do something positive, and change the course of where we’ve been headed this year,” said Marshall. The service will also feature performances by the Afro American Music Institute Boys Choir, and the Rev. Deryck Tines and the Lemington Gospel Chorale.
But Juneteenth is mostly about honoring the black community’s resilience and creativity.
Juneteenth officially begins Friday with the fifth annual Celebration of Life Black Tie Honors Gala, at the Marriot City Center. The event recognizes a dozen local religious and community leaders “who serve to uplift communities” in the region. It will be hosted by actor Pooch Hall, of the Showtime series “Ray Donovan.”
At 11 a.m. Saturday, comes the Juneteenth Jubilee Parade, a re-enactment of an 1870 event in Pittsburgh (the Jubilee of Freemen Parade) celebrating black men getting the vote. The parade begins at Freedom Corner, in the Hill District, and passes through Downtown to end at Point State Park. Marshall said the parade will feature community groups from youth organizations to fraternities, with special guests including the Maryland-based re-enactors of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Association of the famed buffalo soldiers.
The parade feeds into the Martin R. Delany Freedom Fest, in Point State Park. The free, day-long festival is named for the physician, journalist, abolitionist and soldier who spent much of his life in Pittsburgh. Attractions include live music and dance, food vendors, and an attempt to break the record for the longest “Soul Train” dance line, said Marshall. Acts include local talent the Elias Khouri Band and Chicago-based Kool & The Gang tribute group Hollywood Swinging Band.
Sunday is the all-day Black Music Festival, including a set by WAMO’s DJ Brother Marlon, and reggae, R & B, and soul acts. A tribute to trumpeter, composer and former Pittsburgh resident Sean Jones features violinist Rodney McCoy, the AAMI Pittsburgh Jazz All-Stars, and flutist Bobbi Humphrey. The headliner is Chicago-based Earth, Wind & Fire tribute group Shining Star Band. The music festival is also free.
Marshall emphasized that all are welcome to Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth is an American celebration that everybody should partake in, just like the Fourth of July,” he said.
For a complete schedule, see the Juneteenth Facebook page.