The United States of America's complicated history is rife with tensions between oppression and empowerment, especially in relation to the Africans snatched from their homelands and forced into slavery here. The irony was already well-known when the country was started by freedom-loving patriots like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who also were slave-owners. Critics accused the nation's founders of carrying the torch of liberty in one hand, and a slave-master's whip in the other.
But the African American community has come a long way. Tonight, on June 22, African American cultural and political leaders will kick off the Juneteenth Festival, celebrating the emancipation of the slaves, with a ceremonial "honoring the ancestors" wreath-laying at 6th and Market, near the first President's House, in tribute to the nine slaves who toiled in George Washington's household.
"The kind of treatment that our ancestors received here – it wasn't just any kind of slavery, this was the worst kind of slavery that has ever been imposed on any group of people in the world," said famed Phlly musician Kenny Gamble, the founder of Universal charter school and an organizer with the Philadelphia Community of Leaders (PCOL) of the Universal Juneteenth Festival, now in its third year. "Our ancestors were robbed of their identity. When they speak today about separating families, they destroyed our families. It's almost a miracle that the African American community has rebounded to this point today, where we've come from slave ships to leadership."
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Juneteenth is a holiday marking the end of slavery – originally denoting June 19, 1865, the day after the Confederacy had surrendered when Union soldiers including soldiers of color poured into Galveston, Texas, where many slaves were unaware they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and shared the joyous news. The town erupted in a celebration that is still remembered today.
Celebrations of Juneteenth have taken place sporadically since then, but some say it deserves more recognition and should be a federal holiday. In Philadelphia, which is believed to be the first city to hold a Juneteenth Parade, according to the Philadelphia Tribune, there is more than one celebration of the holiday: last weekend, Historic Germantown's Johnson House, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, held a Juneteenth festival.
But this weekend, there will be an even bigger celebration: the wreath-laying Friday, an event unto itself, will be followed by a parade through Center City on Saturday, June 21 with 17 floats, followed by a massive festival at Penn's Landing, part of PECO's multicultural events series.
"We're not just parading for the sake of parading, there's an educational component too," said Kofi Asante, executive producer and artistic director of the Universal Juneteenth Festival. "The struggle we've gone through being Africans born in America is at the foundation of this. That's what make its special."
Asante has been working on the Universal Juneteenth Festival since it started three years ago. The first parade has two floats. This year, there will be 14.
The parade will go from City Hall down Market Street to Penn's Landing. The main viewing area is planned to be set up between 5th and 6th streets at Independence Mall, where 6ABC will be filming to televise the parade.
The parade is also broken up into four historical theme, Asante said: kingship to slave ship; civil rights; emancipation; and future and leadership. One float will have the Tuskeegee Airmen, National Association of Black Veterans and Buffalo Soldiers will be on float, and the Tuskeegee Airmen Flight Club will even do a flyover of the parade.
As Juneteenth just keeps getting bigger, Asante, Gamble and PCOL have also been lobbying for Juneteenth in Harrisburg, where legislators are moving forward state rep. Stephen Kinsey's resolution#871 to make Juneteenth an official state holiday.
"I don't think that African American history gets any of the respect that it deserves on any level, in terms of the contributions, the sacrifices, and what our history really is, either from what we've done here in America or our long great tradition in Africa," Asante said. "That's why we're promoting this, so our young people will understand we are standing on."
Other musical acts will include a 100-youth marching band, and Richard Acey (Bob Marley's keyboard player) and the Sons of Acey on a floating performing "Redemption Song."
Gamble, who is known for along with wife Faatimah Gamble, running charter schools in Philadelphia, vocational programs, fashion shows, and finishing schools for African American youths, said he believes this festival will eventually become an even bigger tradition in Philadelphia and the nation.
"The African American community is really searching for its history and its culture," Gamlble said. "We're hoping it becomes something where not only African American people but all people will be able to learn about our culture and our history and what our trials and tribulations have been. People don't really know the African American community, they don't really know our story. It's time now to fight for an exciting education, because that's what's going to make the difference."
If you go
The Universal Juneteenth Festival Musicfest and Parade will run June 22-23.
5:30 p.m.: An "honoring the ancestors wreath ceremony" will be held at Independence Mall, 6th and Market streets. There will be music and entertainment.
12 p.m.: Juneteenth Parade kicks off at 15th and JFK, wraps around City Hall and heads to Penn's Landing.
2-8 p.m.: Juneteenth Musicfest & Parade at Penn's Landing, one of PECO's Multicultural Festivals, with a marketplace, children's village, music and other performances.