African, reggae, Caribbean, and R&B music played by marching and steel bands and contemporary ensembles heralded the arrival of the Juneteenth Day Parade and Festival on Saturday in Philadelphia.
Although clouds loomed over Market Street, onlookers, some drawn by the parade while others just happened upon it, gleefully snapped cellphone pictures of colorful floats, stilt walkers, contingents of rhythmic dancers, and marching units that ranged from Civil War Union soldier reenactors to city Police Department cadets.
Juneteenth — also called Freedom Day and African American Independence Day — dates from June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with word that the Civil War was over, and the last of the nation’s slaves learned they were free. This was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Philadelphia’s parade, in its third year, is among a growing number of Juneteenth events across the country. The parade, which began at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, and proceeded east on Market Street to Penn’s Landing, was presented by the Philadelphia Community of Leaders. The organization of African American private-sector leaders representing civic organizations, nonprofits, clergy, labor, business, and neighborhoods was founded by Kenny Gamble, the music-industry legend and community development executive.
The Inquirer and Daily News spent time along the parade route to hear from attendees on why they celebrate Juneteenth Day.
Deborah Tucker, 53, a jewelry vendor from Lower Merion:
“We celebrate to acknowledge our ancestors and to teach the young people about slavery and the end of slavery in this country,” said Tucker, who attended the parade with her husband and seven of her 12 grandchildren. “We educate each other because we didn’t learn about this in school. We had to learn on our own. So, it’s important that I bring the grandchildren so they know what it’s all about. We finally have our own holiday, but we’re trying to make this a national holiday. That would be great.”
Sgt. Major Joseph H. Lee, 79, retired from the Marines, the Air Force, and as a machinist with the Budd Company, from North Philadelphia:
“I celebrate because I’m black and it’s a black holiday. I do it because it’s a part of my life. I’ve been celebrating this ever since it began,” said Lee, who marched in the parade with reenactors portraying the first black regiment trained to fight in the Civil War from Philadelphia.
Catherine Crowner, 32, a School District of Philadelphia second-grade teacher from North Philadelphia:
“Personally, I wouldn’t call it a celebration. I feel like Juneteenth should be looked at like a Memorial Day to really help us appreciate all that we have gone through. June 19, 1865, was an amazing day for us, but we went through so much directly after that. So, it’s really important for me that my son knows his history and for me that I continue educating myself and my family and friends,” said Crowner, who brought son Ethan, 6.
Deborah James, 59, a caregiver from Wilmington:
“I celebrate so that we can always remember, and I teach my grandchildren, right here, about Juneteenth and what it means. We have to pass that knowledge on to our kids, and a lot of them aren’t getting it. We came here from Delaware, and people right from this state didn’t even know what was going on here. Why is that?” asked James, who came with a group of relatives, including two grandchildren.
Roseann Baptiste, 50, a technical designer from Brooklyn, NY:
“Just to acknowledge our ancestors and to keep their spirits alive and let them know that we are here, we are there, and we are celebrating their lives, their struggles, and just preserving our culture altogether.”
Donna Dove, “50-something,” a fashion designer living in Harlem, N.Y.:
“Juneteenth, I think, should be celebrated every year by every state because it’s the celebration of us being free. So it’s good to celebrate it here in Philadelphia. We do it in New York, too, and we also do it in Trinidad and Tobago, where I’m from. We call it Emancipation. It’s a big festival down there.”