West Philly vies to host the nation’s official Juneteenth celebration

The pan-African flag was ceremoniously raised at Philadelphia’s City Hall on Wednesday in anticipation of both the holiday on Saturday, and the possibility Juneteenth could become an official federal holiday.

“Red represents the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry and shed for liberation,” said city deputy managing director Jazelle Jones. “Black represents Black people whose existence as a nation, though not a nation-state, is affirmed by the existence of the flag. And, finally, green represents the abundant natural wealth of Africa.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. senate unanimously approved a bill to make June 19 a federal holiday recognizing the date in 1865 when the last enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas were finally informed that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 freed slaves in the seceding states of the American south. The bill is expected to pass in the House Wednesday.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has already made Juneteenth a city holiday, at least until the end of his term in 2023. Since 2016, the day has been marked with parades and activities, first in Center City, then in 2019 the event moved to West Philadelphia on 52nd Street.

The Pennsylvania Juneteenth Initiative (PAJI) is behind the city’s Juneteenth Parade and Festival, which the organization hopes will one day become the official national celebration.

That’s why before this year’s festivities even begin, PAJI is already thinking about next year.

“The Pennsylvania Juneteenth Initiative has three goals: making Juneteenth a national holiday (we’re almost there!,) making Philadelphia the host of the official national Juneteenth celebration, and making West Philadelphia the hub of the official Juneteenth celebration,” said PAJI co-founder Helen Salahuddin.

Organizers of the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade and Festival join city officials outside City Hall for the raising of the Black Liberation flag.
Organizers of the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade and Festival join city officials outside City Hall for the raising of the Black Liberation flag. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Last year, because of the pandemic, the parade was canceled in favor of COVID-19 testing facilities and voter registration drives. Although pandemic restrictions have recently been lifted, it came too late to organize a parade. Instead, on Saturday there will be a march along 52nd Street to Malcolm X Park, where vendors and performances will be set up.

As present and future Juneteenth events are planned, Salahuddin said the group needs to address two questions: “Who is this for, and does it work to free our people?”

She said the PAJI has answered those questions by moving the event from Center City to West Philadelphia, and using Juneteenth to promote Black-owned business on the 52nd Street commercial corridor.

Kenney offered his own answer to one of those questions.

“This holiday is for all of us,” he said. “We all have to know this story, and we all have to know the truth. When I was growing up – I’m 62 years old – my history classes did not have the truth. It had a version of the truth, but it did not have the truth.”

Wednesday’s ceremony was not the first time the pan-African flag was raised at City Hall for Juneteenth specifically. A week earlier, the Juneteenth flag was raised by the Philadelphia Juneteenth Family, Inc., which organized downtown buildings to light up red, green, and black the week of Juneteenth (June 13 – 19).

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