Pittsburgh’s annual commemoration of slavery’s end has outgrown Downtown’s Market Square. The weekend-long Juneteenth Celebration & Black Music Fest is headed a few blocks west, to Point State Park.
Juneteenth commemorates the date in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. That happened in Texas, but the date – June 19, to be precise – is marked across the nation. While Pittsburgh has hosted more-or-less official Juneteenth festivals for decades, since 2014 they’ve been organized by Stop The Violence-Pittsburgh, founded and led by local music promoter William Marshall.
“That was our way of bringing various communities together through different activities and socializing, and trying to have some brotherhood and some sisterhood amongst the community,” said Marshall.
The festival runs three days, including a Friday-night gala; Saturday’s Juneteenth Freedom Parade and Martin R. Delany Freedom Day Festival; and Sunday’s Black Music Festival.
A Juneteenth Justice Forum on Saturday afternoon features local activists and politicians and special guest Jennifer Pinckney, a survivor of the 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C., and husband of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who died in the attack. Pinckney is also a special guest at the Stop the Violence Pittsburgh Celebration of Life Gala, and serves as grand marshal of the parade.
Marshall said Freedom Parade recalls an actual historic celebration.
“It’s called the Jubilee of Freedmen Parade, that was held here in the city of Pittsburgh in 1870, and that's based on the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote,” said Marshall. “We decided to reenact it and bring it back here.”
The parade begins at Freedom Corner, in the Hill District, and will feature community groups, military units and historical re-enactors portraying such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Delany, the famed abolitionist who spent part of his life in Pittsburgh. Marshall said he expects about 500 participants to march in the parade.
The all-day Freedom Day Festival includes live music, a voter-registration drive, kids’ activities, food vendors and more. Bands include R&B and soul group The Bill Henry Band and reggae outfit the Flow Band. Another attraction: an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for largest “Soul Train” line dance. Marshall says the record stands at 250 couples, and he’s hoping to draw 1,000.
Marshall said previous Juneteenth celebrations have drawn up to 3,000 attendees. He expects this incarnation to top that number.
On Sunday, the focus is on music, with a line-up including gospel, jazz, R&B and dance troupes. The headliner is touring band Shining Star, an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute band.
“They put on a performance, they put on the costumes,” said Marshall. “They’ll take you back to the ’70s.”
Major sponsors of the Juneteenth festival include the Heinz Endowments, UPMC and New York Life.