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Region to celebrate Juneteenth holiday

Service to include litany of repentance, prayers, bell tolling

Residents in Blair and neighboring counties will be celebrating Juneteenth this weekend, a holiday that marks the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Joe Biden signed legislation last year making Juneteenth, June 19, a national holiday.

Blair County NAACP President Andrae Holsey said the holiday is important to him and should be to Blair County residents in particular given its rich African American history.

“As Blair County citizens, Juneteenth should mean more to us than almost anywhere else in the nation,” Holsey said. “As a significant hub for the Underground Railroad, a frequently visited spot by Harriet Tubman and possibly Frederick Douglass, and a region built by the hands of free slaves, Juneteenth is as much a celebration in Blair County as anywhere. We should all be proud of our forefathers here and the actions of Blair County residents to secure the freedoms denied to so many Americans for so long.”

At St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Altoona, there will be a Service of Lamentation and Repentance for the Sin of Racism at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

The service will include music, prayers and a litany of repentance. The church bell will toll 403 times, one for each year that has passed since an English ship arrived in Virginia in 1619 with the first enslaved Africans.

Woody Pyeatt, a congregant of St. Luke’s, said Juneteenth is a way to reflect on our history and learn from it, too.

“It’s something we need to be thinking about and how it affects us even to this day,” Pyeatt said. “None of us can go back, but if we don’t make change in our society today, then we’re not following the teachings of Jesus. It’s about raising awareness of the essential fact of slavery being part of America and our history. It’s not designed to create guilt. If you don’t know the history, you really don’t know American history. It’s something we feel very strongly about.”

For Anthony Bullett, a Huntingdon native and member of the Huntingdon County Juneteenth Festival organizational committee, Juneteenth is about remembrance through community.

“It’s all about coming and meeting up with other people,” Bullett said. “It’s a reunion of sorts, and since it started, it’s been a time for people from Mount Union and Huntingdon to come together for a time of fellowship.”

Bullett said the pandemic has made the celebration smaller than normal, but that the show must go on.

“It’s going to be a little more low-key because we weren’t sure how COVID would pan out, but there will be local talent and taking time to recognize a couple families who have been around for many decades, honoring senior members of the community and some light entertainment,” Bullett said. “There will be no headliners, but we will have musical entertainment from Huntingdon and Mount Union.”

The Saturday festivities, which will take place at Portstown Park from noon to 6 p.m., will draw 200 to 300 people, Bullett said.

“Friends who haven’t seen each other in years come, and it’s an atmosphere where we try to provide a relaxed environment for people to come and hang out and meet old and new people. People come in from out of town.”

The festival was first held in 2010 at Blair Park in what Bullett described as a small, intimate gathering in Huntingdon.

“The original idea was for families to come together, and it was really impromptu,” Bullett said. “In 2011, there was a little more planning, and by 2013-14, we decided, ‘Let’s try to expand it and see if other people come.'”

Bullet said that Blair Park has more sentimental value to him and the African American community because it’s located where many African American families settled in the beginning of the 20th century.

“It’s where many of us grew up,” Bullet said. “But Portstown Park offered bathrooms, a covered pavilion and more space.”

For Bullet, the festival and what it represents are profoundly meaningful.

“It provides us visibility, and I think we add to the culture in the county as a way of showcasing African American craft talent and entertainment talent, and it’s a way for us as a county to come together and be together in harmony,” Bullett said.

Joan Rogers of Mount Union is also on the committee for the Huntingdon County festival. She said that while Juneteenth is a time of celebration, it’s more so a reminder of our history, which she encourages people to be well-versed in.

“It’s a very well-organized, small community event, but this is also an educational event,” Rogers said. “I’ve always tried to know more about my history. As a person who likes history, Juneteenth is another entity where I think it’s important to know history and understand it, which means to me that it’s about educating people. We need to know our history, understand where we were, where we are in the present and where we’ll be in the future.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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