Locals work to educate others, fight for justice
An often overlooked historic milestone, Juneteenth is slowly garnering long-overdue recognition locally and nationally.
On Thursday, the United States took a major step when President Joe Biden signed a bill, officially recognizing it as a national holiday.
Juneteenth — June 19 — memorializes the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves of their freedom in 1865. Those slaves had been freed on Jan. 1, 1863, by the Emancipation Proclamation, but they didn’t know until the Union soldiers told them.
Locally, Juneteenth will be observed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mount Union.
If you ask Blair County NAACP President Andrae Holsey, he’ll tell you there’s work to be done in the immediate area.
“I believe it is being overlooked (in Blair County) because of tensions relating to race and feelings of division, but I hope that coming out of this year where people are so divided over their political views, as we start to walk forward, more people will come out and celebrate and recognize that it’s not meant to be divisive, and that it is still American history.”
Holsey lamented how the sharing of the Black experience is often dismissed as polarizing and politically motivated.
“I recognize that race is a divisive structure, but if we continue to be colorblind, we’re not solving the problems that exist for those who are not,” Holsey said. “Before we can be colorblind, we have to recognize that, yes, people look different and have different experiences and here’s how those experiences have contributed to the American picture.”
“I think with more conversation and less confrontation, we can make that step forward where we can talk more comfortably in central Pennsylvania,” Holsey said. “This area is quite a few years behind compared to the rest of America, but we’re working to get it caught up.”
Still, Holsey said, the rise in prevalence of Juneteenth celebrations across the state is encouraging. For instance, Johnstown held several programs recognizing the historic day last week.
“It’s nice to experience it here because I’m not originally from Pennsylvania,” Holsey said. “Most of my family, this time of year, we would be visiting them in the South, where things are celebrated differently and it’s more community-based. I think we have an opportunity to expand that culture and sense of community here with our Juneteenth celebrations. I would say that freedom is definitely a cause worth celebrating.”
Juneteenth has profound meaning to Holsey, who said he, personally, has experienced the ugliness of racism. Ultimately, he said, the day’s value is best reflected in how society chooses to move forward.
“Juneteenth, to me, is powerful because it represents an on-paper change, but it also reminds us of the interactions we need to have, the conversations that need to be had and the progress that still needs to be made.”
While Juneteenth should be a time of celebration, Holsey said it’s a poignant reminder that there is much work to be done.
“In the Black Lives Matter movement, when we make victories in legislation and voting rights and civil rights, we often say, ‘celebrate today, but tomorrow we get back to work.’ That’s what Juneteenth reminds me of — celebrate today, get back to work tomorrow.”
‘Still work to do’
Anthony Bullett, director of music at Huntingdon Presbyterian Church, agrees society has a ways to go, but through years of serving on the Huntingdon County Juneteenth Celebration Committee, he’s seen the area come a long way.
“I think that, yeah, there’s still work to do, but by having more of these festivals and having more publicity around them, that has really started to help people understand what it is,” Bullett said. “When we started, even in the African-American community, not everybody knew what Juneteenth was. I think by having (the festival) every year, that’s been an education in and of itself. It’s something that’s visible, it’s something that’s been talked about and we’ve gotten the message out, so people are much more familiar with Juneteenth.”
The annual Huntingdon County Juneteenth festival was canceled this year due to the pandemic. In lieu of the regular event, a smaller celebration will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mount Union, where guests can enjoy music and drumming, a panel discussion, history presentations and refreshments.
The Rev. Keith Moore of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church says Juneteenth has spiritual meaning, especially given his church’s rich African-American history. The historically Black church in Altoona was a stop along the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. Slaves were given shelter in a room behind a hidden door near the choir loft.
“It’s like this spiritual feeling that you get, just knowing that slaves were up there running for their lives,” Moore said. “The spirituality up there is real. My goal, one day, is to fix that area up so people can go up there and just spend time and have that moment.”
Moore said Juneteenth is a quintessential piece of Black culture that’s “starting to be very popular now.”
“Even as African Americans, we did not learn about it in school, but Juneteenth is celebrated in a lot of cities across the United States,” Moore said, days before it became a national holiday with Biden’s signature.
“Today, you see a lot of celebrations where they have public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and they’ll sing old, traditional hymns like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and the African-American National Anthem,” Moore said.
The rise in awareness of Juneteenth is encouraging to Moore, who said the issue of police brutality has brought the day to the attention of many people.
“Following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, you have these big companies like Target, IKEA and the NFL who have declared it as a company holiday, so it’s starting to grow here more.”
Moore described Juneteenth’s meaning to his community and him personally.
“As African Americans, we celebrate it by having cookouts and little things like that, coming together to recognize freedom,” Moore said. “For me, it’s God blessing me to be able to see Juneteenth celebrated because of what our people have gone through. I take it very seriously. I pray that not just African Americans, but everybody will take it seriously because we are human beings first. I believe no matter what race, creed or color you are, we all should celebrate freedom.”
While Juneteenth has always been meaningful to him, Moore admits he hasn’t incorporated the celebration of it in his church community yet.
“We haven’t really done a lot,” he said, “but that’s going to change.”
“There’s no real big celebration, but we’re building on celebrating it,” Moore said. “The important part is educating people about Juneteenth and explaining to them the reason behind it and the gory details that come with that, what our people have gone through.
“We’re going to put together a committee to celebrate not only in our church, but to come together as a community in Altoona. We want to see if we can build it up every year to be something special in the Altoona area.”
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.