Lehigh Valley launches a Juneteenth festival just as it becomes a national holiday

(Juneteenth Lehigh Valley)

(Juneteenth Lehigh Valley)

The inaugural Juneteenth Lehigh Valley festival will take place all day Saturday in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A year in planning, organizers say it’s serendipitous that their first festival is happening just as Juneteenth has become a national holiday.

The president of Juneteenth Lehigh Valley, Karen Britt, said many Black people in the Lehigh Valley do not normally celebrate Juneteenth, including herself. The Northampton Community College economics professor admitted she only learned about Juneteenth in recent years.

“The fact of the matter is, I grew up celebrating the Fourth of July, really not knowing about Juneteenth,” said Britt. “No fault to my parents, it’s just not anything that we knew.”

Juneteenth has been celebrated in smaller events throughout the Lehigh Valley, but never as a unified, large-scale event drawing together communities from Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, as Juneteenth Lehigh Valley is attempting to do.

Britt said she has spent the past year rallying partners, sponsors, vendors to participate in a Juneteenth event that many of them had little or no previous interest in. She said they came onboard because of the high-profile killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 and the social unrest they triggered during the pandemic.

“We needed something to elevate our community and elevate our presence because it’s just been so horrendous, the shootings and everything that’s gone on,” she said. “It was, like, a time to exhale. Everything has been so horrendous, so negative, and Juneteenth is a celebration. We need that celebration.”

The Juneteenth Lehigh Valley festival will include live music at the ArtsQuest center on the SteelStacks cultural campus in Bethlehem, as well as live theater, films and discussions, an art show, and of course food.

Many of the activities at the festival are designed to inform people what Juneteenth is about: remembering the date that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were finally informed, in 1865, that the Proclamation Declaration signed in 1862 had made them free. It took 2 ½ years for the news to get to them.

A live theater production about Juneteenth will be performed at the festival, as well as film screenings about the holiday, and a coloring book developed for the Lehigh Valley festival has already begun to be distributed to children.

People first began celebrating Juneteenth the year after it happened, in 1866, and since then certain traditions have developed, like eating red food to symbolize blood shed through slavery. To this day, barbeque, red beans and rice, and red velvet cake are typically served on Juneteenth.

“If I can eat a hot dog with you on the Fourth of July… you can eat a slice of red velvet cake with me on Juneteenth,” said Britt

Now that Juneteenth has been elevated to a national holiday, it will likely be celebrated more widely, but in ways not yet known.

“Now that it’s a federal holiday, what will Juneteenth look like?” asked Britt. “We have the opportunity to write that narrative. I hope it doesn’t go into the commercialization of what we have with mattress sales and all that kind of thing all around the Fourth of July, which really doesn’t speak to the heart of why we have the Fourth of July as a holiday, but that we really keep it authentic, that it’s always communal.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal