West Philadelphia welcomes Juneteenth parade and festival with open arms

Hosting this year’s festival in their neighborhood, rather than Center City, was a point of pride and positivity, spectators and vendors said.

2019 Juneteenth Parade

The 2019 Juneteenth Parade makes its way down 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, where it was held for the first year after moving from Center City. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

For some West Philadelphia residents, there was no better place for this year’s Juneteenth Parade and Festival than along the 52nd Street business corridor, with the march ending Saturday at Malcolm X Park at 52nd and Pine streets.

“It’s just a beautiful thing to have it in our neighborhood, and to be able to just have people walk out their house and walk across the street and see what’s going on,” said Ericalynn Cotton, who lives at 50th and Westminster.

Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of June 19, 1865, when the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But more broadly, Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery throughout the United States. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans.

Philadelphia has hosted a Juneteenth Parade since 2016, when it was conceived by Kenny Gamble and Ali Salahuddin. There was also a celebration June 15 at Germantown’s Johnson House Historic Site, which was a stop along the Underground Railroad.

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The parade was formerly hosted in Center City, but this year its organizers — who also hope to make the parade as big as the Mummers — decided to move it to West Philadelphia. And for people living there, the celebration was a point of pride and positivity for the community.

Cotton runs Elle by El, a clothing line focused on black culture. Saturday, she sold T-shirts that read “Black” or “Dope” with the letters A and O in those words replaced by the outline of the African continent.

Ericalynn Cotton, owner of clothing company Elle by El shows off her products at the Juneteenth Parade on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia Saturday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

She said it was a privilege to be a vendor at Juneteenth and in her own neighborhood.

“I think it helps us economically, just because we live here, and we are making things to sell, so now it’s going to help us pay our bills, pay our mortgage, pay our taxes and all those sorts of things,” Cotton said.

During Saturday’s parade, which started at noon at 52nd and Jefferson streets, an estimated 2,200 people, representing local dance troupes, drumlines and nonprofits, marched or rode floats. (Organizers expected a crowd of about 8,000 would turn out to watch the parade, though event-day numbers were not immediately available.)

A little after 5 p.m., a woman driving an SUV accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake, jumping the curb and hitting two women at the corner of 52nd and Spruce streets — just a few blocks from Malcolm X Park, according to Philadelphia Police. Neither woman sustained life-threatening injuries, but both sought treatment at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. The driver was not injured, police said.

As one float passed by, spectators could hear chants of “Float like a butterly, sting like a bee,” the phrase made famous by legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

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That’s because a section of 52nd Street was renamed Muhammad Ali Way after the parade came through. Ali’s daughter and grandson attended the renaming ceremony, which brought the area’s City Council representative, Jannie Blackwell, Councilman-at-large David Oh, and Mayor Jim Kenney to the stage.

Many in the Juneteenth crowd were thrilled to see 52nd Street named after Ali.

Robert Rudd, who lives at 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue, was selling Ali memorabilia — posters from some of his great moments.

Robert Rudd stands with his collection of historic photos of Muhamad Ali, Joe Frazier and famous African American figures at the Juneteenth parade on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia Saturday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

“Muhammad Ali was one of my great heroes,” Rudd said. “He did a lot for the civil rights struggle, plus resisting in the Vietnam era. I think kids should know that.”

David Harris grew up in West Philly but now lives in Blue Bell, Montgomery County. This was his first Juneteenth parade, and he said he was glad to see it in his old neighborhood, rather than in Center City.

For Harris, Juneteenth is about thinking more about his African-American heritage and history.

“[Juneteenth] is one of those holidays that we can claim as our own, unlike maybe the Fourth of July,” Harris said. “Some people will say, `Well, some of us were still enslaved at that point.’ I think it’s a great thing.”

Carmen Seldon-Scott stands in front of some of her products Saturday at the Juneteenth Parade on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Relocating the Junenteenth celebration to West Philadelphia also made some local business owners hopeful.

Rashie Abdul Samad is a co-owner of the African Cultural Art Forum, a business at 52nd and Walnut that sells products such as home decor and jewelry manufactured in Africa. They’re celebrating 50 years in business this year and hope Juneteenth will bring an economic boost to the neighborhood.

“We need anything we can get on 52nd Street. Anything positive,” Samad said. “I think [Juneteenth] is a great atmosphere, for the children and everybody.”

“What was going on downtown was only supporting downtown,” Samad added. “Now that we are here, it can only grow and get better each year.”

Children play on 52nd Street before the arrival of the Juneteenth Parade Saturday in West Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

The Juneteenth festival brought things to a close Saturday night with a performance by Philly-based R&B soul duo Kindred the Family Soul.

Ericalynn Cotton said she hopes to see Juneteenth stay in West Philly as the celebration grows each year.

“I think it’s awesome because you get the locals, you get the people who actually live here who are from here, and it’s predominantly black,” Cotton said. “It’s just an opportunity to be around people who like me, feel like me, and all of these lovely black people.”

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