Editor’s Note: Since publication, legislation was passed to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The bill was signed at 3:30 p.m. on June 17, 2021.
On January 1, 1863, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect. While word quickly spread that all enslaved people living in the Confederate States were legally free, those freedoms wouldn’t fully be extended to all until much later. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to when more than 250,000 enslaved individuals learned of their newfound freedom. Ever since that day, Juneteenth has served as a commemoration of that monumental event.
While not yet a federal holiday, most states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday or observance. Juneteenth is typically celebrated with community-centric events such as parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, and musical performances. Across the Ohio Valley, several events have been organized to commemorate the occasion.
After hosting an inaugural Juneteenth in 2019 and going virtual in 2020, the Wheeling Juneteenth Committee is happy to host this year’s celebration in-person. The event will begin at 5 p.m. with a short ceremony at the north end of Market Plaza. The location is of significance as the space was once a slave auction block. After the ceremony, a celebration with music, entertainment, food trucks, information tables and COVID-19 vaccinations will follow at Wheeling Heritage Port. The celebration will also include a short recognition ceremony for the Ohio Valley African American Student Association, a program that celebrates the academic accomplishments of Black and biracial students from across the Ohio Valley.
Speakers for the event’s opening ceremonies include Loma Nevels, vice chair of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission; Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of West Liberty University; Owens Brown, president of the West Virginia NAACP; and Glenn Elliott, mayor of the City of Wheeling. After the ceremony, live entertainment will be held at Wheeling Heritage Port featuring performances by Ezra John Hamilton, Keez, Tree of Life, Logan Wojcik, and Tony Williams.
“We want to kick off this event with a ceremony, to remember those that came before us, but ultimately, Juneteenth is a celebration. That’s why it is so important to incorporate music. We’ve all missed gathering, and this is an opportunity to gather safely in celebration,” said Ron Scott, cultural diversity and community outreach director at the YWCA Wheeling, and chair of the Juneteenth Committee. “It would be really easy to stay feeling down right now, but this is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of the black community in Wheeling.”
The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville will be honoring Juneteenth with a lecture by Ron Scott on Saturday from noon – 1 p.m. Scott will be discussing the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the Ohio Valley, and how it has been celebrated through the years.
The Underground Railroad Museum will host its celebration at the Schuler Park Amphitheater in Flushing, OH on Saturday at 11 am at 11 a.m. The celebration will focus on Sara Lucy Bagby, the last enslaved person transported back to Wheeling, WV due to the Fugitive Slave Act also known as the Bloodhound Bill. Wheeling Historian, Margaret Brennan will speak of Sara’s journey to freedom. The celebration will also include a poetry contest and local speakers including West Liberty University President Dr. W. Franklin Evans, Ohio Valley Civil War expert Thomas Buckley, and the Underground Railroad Museum director Kristina Estle.
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“Juneteenth is an important event in American History and it is frequently overlooked. I hope to spark interest in this part of history and other aspects of American History,” said Estle. “This event will be held in memory of Dr. John Mattox [the museum’s former director]. He is continually missed and the legacy and contributions he left behind will not be forgotten!”
Home to Quaker settlers who were passionate abolitionists, The Ohio Valley area was active in the Underground Railroad throughout the 19th century. The Underground Railroad Museum shares this history through the lens of both passionate abolitionists and the enslaved people seeking freedom and refuge in Ohio. You can learn more about the Underground Railroad Museum and their Juneteenth event by visiting their website.
The Second Baptist Church in Steubenville will host its fifth annual Juneteenth with a day-long celebration at 717 Adams Street, Steubenville, OH. The event will be held from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and will include food vendors, information tables, health screenings, COVID-19 vaccinations, a voter registration table, raffles and giveaways, live music, a DJ, and a dance contest. There will truly be something for everyone at this event.
Traditionally, the church organizes a three-day Juneteenth celebration. However, the organizers decided that a one-day event would be the best option this year given the uncertainly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s only a one-day event, it certainly won’t be short on excitement – the planning committee is excited to welcome renowned gospel artist and storyteller Angela Primm to the party. Primm, based in Nashville, TN, uses her talents to teach the history behind the sound of Black Gospel music.
If you can’t make it out for an in-person event, The Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs has prepared a lineup of virtual performances to be streamed from their Facebook page on Saturday, June 19 at 5 p.m. The program will feature musicians, dancers, and poets from West Virginia, with a special performance by Montell Jordan, the former R&B singer best known for his song “This is How We Do It” before leaving the music industry to become a pastor. This event will mark the first time that the West Virginia Legislature has recognized June 19 as Juneteenth Day.
How will you be celebrating Juneteenth this year? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.