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.
2021 was a groundbreaking year for Juneteenth, as legislation was passed establishing June 19 as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The bill was signed by President Joe Biden at 3:30 p.m. on June 17, 2021.
Juneteenth is typically celebrated with community-centric events such as parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, and musical performances. Here in Wheeling, the Juneteenth Committee has planned a three-day celebration to remember and honor Black liberation.
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The kick-off to Juneteenth will begin on Friday, June 17 at 12:30 p.m. at the Ohio County Public Library with a special edition of Lunch with Books titled “Crossing the River for Freedom: Slavery and the Underground Railroad.” Kristina Estle, public historian and director and curator of the Ohio Valley Underground Railroad Museum will present her research on the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement in Belmont County as well as slavery in Wheeling.
The following day on June 18, the Wheeling YWCA will host an evening that celebrates Black resilience and culture at 5 p.m. Professional reenactor and magician Rory Rennick will perform an act telling the story of Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man who shipped himself to freedom in a wooden box. Following the Henry “Box” Brown reenactment, the Goree Drum and Dance Company will perform a traditional West African dance show.
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On Sunday, June 19, the community will come together to honor and celebrate African American history, music, faith, family and freedom and the fourth annual Wheeling Juneteenth Ceremony. The event will begin at 5 p.m. with a short ceremony at the north end of The Plaza on Market in Downtown Wheeling. The location is of significance as the space was once a slave auction block. After the ceremony, music, entertainment and food trucks will follow at the south end of the Plaza.
Loma Nevels addressing the crowd at the 2021 Wheeling Juneteenth Ceremony.
Hundreds of people gathered at Market Plaza for the 2021 Wheeling Juneteenth Ceremony.
Sen. Owens Brown sharing the history and significance of Juneteenth at the 2021 ceremony.
Isaiah "Keez" Alford performing at Heritage Port during the 2021 Wheeling Juneteenth Celebration.
Speakers for the event’s opening ceremonies include Dr. Monique Akassi, Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at West Liberty University; Darryl Clausell, president of the West Virginia NAACP; Jerry Moore, president of the Belmont County NAACP; Rev. Twila Davis of the Macedonia Baptist Church; and Glenn Elliott, mayor of the City of Wheeling.
After the ceremony, music, entertainment and food trucks will follow at the south end of the plaza featuring performances by Voices of Praise, Isaiah Keez, and Soul Skool.
“I am so excited for our Juneteenth celebration this year. It is the culmination of a collaboration between different groups in the Ohio Valley that should make all of us proud to live here,” said Ron Scott, cultural diversity and community outreach director at the YWCA Wheeling and chair of the Juneteenth Committee. “The best part about this year’s celebration is that the questions I’m getting are more than ‘What is Juneteenth,” and is instead ‘What are you guys doing for Juneteenth?’ That shows me that we are focused on doing the right type of work.”
All Wheeling Juneteenth events are free and open to the public. You can learn more about this year’s schedule of events by visiting WheelingJuneteenth.com.
• 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.