Residents of Blair and adjacent counties celebrate June 16 this weekend, a holiday that marks the day in 1865 that slaves in Texas were declared their freedom more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
President Joe Biden last year signed legislation making June 19, June 19, a national holiday.
Blair County NAACP President Andrae Holsey said the holiday is important to him and should be especially meaningful to Blair County residents given its rich African-American history.
“As citizens of Blair County, Juneteenth should mean more to us than almost any other place in the nation.” said Holsey. “A major hub of the Underground Railroad, a frequent site of Harriet Tubman and possibly Frederick Douglass, and a region built by the hands of free slaves, June 16th is as much a celebration in Blair County as anywhere else. We should all be proud of our ancestors here and the actions of Blair County residents to secure the freedoms that so many Americans have been denied for so long.”
A funeral and repentance service for the sin of racism will be held at St Luke’s Episcopal Church in Altoona on Saturday at 5:30pm.
The service includes music, prayers and a litany of penance. The church bell will ring 403 times, one for each year that has passed since an English ship carrying the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619.
Woody Pyeatt, a parishioner at St. Luke’s, said Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on our history and also learn from it.
“It’s something we have to think about and how it affects us to this day,” said Pyatt. “None of us can go back, but unless we change our society today, we are not following the teachings of Jesus. It’s about raising awareness of the essential fact that slavery is part of America and our history. It’s not designed to create guilt. If you don’t know history, you really don’t know American history. This is something that is very close to our hearts.”
For Anthony Bullett, a native of Huntingdon and a member of the organizing committee for the Huntingdon County Juneteenth Festival, Juneteenth is about community remembrance.
“It’s about coming and meeting 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 made the celebration smaller than normal, but the show must go on.
“It’s going to be a little more low-key because we weren’t sure how COVID would play out, but there will be local talent and taking time to recognize a few families who have been there for many decades to honor senior members of the community and light entertainment”, Bullett said. “There will be no headliners, but we will have musical entertainment from Huntingdon and Mount Union.”
Saturday’s celebrations, 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 are coming, and it’s an atmosphere where we’re trying to create a relaxed environment for people to come and hang out and meet people old and new. People come from out of town.”
The festival first took place in Blair Park in 2010 in what Bullett described as a small, intimate gathering in Huntingdon.
“The original idea was for families to get together and it was really spontaneous,” Bullett said. “There was a little more planning in 2011, and in 2013-14 we decided, ‘Let’s try to expand it and see if other people come along.'”
Bullet said Blair Park held greater sentimental value for him and the African American community because it is located where many African American families settled in the early 20th century.
“A lot of us grew up here” bullet said. “But Portstown Park offered bathrooms, a covered gazebo and more space.”
For Bullet, the festival and what it stands for means a lot.
“It gives us visibility and I think we contribute to the culture in the county to showcase African American craftsmanship 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 a committee member for the Huntingdon County Festival. She said that while June 16th is a time of celebration, it’s more of a reminder of our history, encouraging people to be well-informed.
“It’s a very well organised, small community event, but it’s also an educational event,” said Rogers. “I’ve always tried to learn more about my story. As a person who likes history, Juneteenth is another institution where I think it’s important to know and understand history, which for me means it’s about educating people. We need to know our history, understand where we have been, where we are now and where we will be in the future.”
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer can be reached at 814-946-7428.