What to Expect During Pittsburgh’s 2023 Juneteenth Celebration
The events recognize Black freedom and culture, commemorating the end of the Civil War and slavery.
Pittsburgh’s Juneteenth Celebration is expected to be bigger than ever with a number of concerts in Point State Park and other entertainment Downtown from June 16-19. However, recent changes to security requirements have forced the cancellation of a fireworks display and relocation of food vendors.
When William “B” Marshall first organized a Juneteenth festival with Stop The Violence Pittsburgh in 2013, nearly 100 people gathered in Market Square to recognize the historical holiday. Over the years, the celebration has grown in size and scope as locals have come together to observe Juneteenth, the day when, in 1865, a Union General led thousands of troops to Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and all enslaved people had been freed.
Last year, more than 40,000 people flocked to Point State Park to sing, dance, eat and share memories as they celebrated that historic moment on June 19.
This year marks the 10th year since Marshall first created a space to celebrate Black freedom, culture and accomplishments, and this year’s Juneteenth festivities, collectively known as The Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Homecoming Celebration, are expected to draw 50,000 people Downtown. Marshall says about 1 out of every 10 of those guests will be traveling in from outside the Pittsburgh area, expanding Pittsburgh’s Black community to new networks.
Marshall has matched this growth in attendance with a growth in programming and is welcoming a variety of performers, vendors and community members to celebrate Juneteenth on Monday, June 19, and the weekend leading up to it.
Marshall says he had planned to close the celebration with a fireworks display off the North Shore on the night of June 19. However, about a week ago, officials from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which operates Point State Park, informed him that he would need to provide a security team to check bags before the event.
The state rangers said the organizers’ security team — the one Marshall has used at Juneteenth events for the past five years — lacks a state-required license, according to an email sent to Marshall from DCNR, a policy that is not new and one the organizers have been informed of, according to DCNR officials. They asked Marshall to hire a licensed security company to complete the bag checks instead. Marshall says that would cost him $10,000 to $15,000.
Although the Juneteenth events received a $125,000 grant from the city, Marshall says he already spent the Juneteenth budget on hiring performers and advertising and producing the event. Marshall also says he did not anticipate any additional security costs because the city has helped him cover the cost of police protection in past years.
On a Facebook streaming event on June 9, Mayor Ed Gainey said that the city had no intentions to cancel any Juneteenth events and that police will be patrolling event areas. But he stated that “it is on the private event promoters to comply with all regulations” associated with the fireworks display and provide their own security to check bags.
Because organizers could not afford the security demanded by state officials, Marshall said in a June 11 Facebook post he canceled the fireworks display .
“As far as we’re concerned, this [cancellation] is set in stone. We weren’t prepared for this last- minute change,” he said in a phone interview Monday morning.
Last week, state park officials also informed Marshall that food vendors could not use gas generators in the park due to environmental and safety concerns. Because most of Juneteenth’s 80 vendors use gas generators to cook, Marshall relocated the vendor plaza to a section of Liberty Avenue outside Point State Park.
In a statement sent to Pittsburgh Magazine on Monday, DCNR officials said the regulations are part of “a set of guidelines that we ask all event organizers at Point [State Park] to adhere to.” The DCNR “remain[s] committed to working with the event organizers to provide the appropriate security and conservation measures for the event that ensure this iconic park is welcoming, safe, and conserved for all Pennsylvanians.”
In a phone interview Monday, DCNR Press Secretary Wesley Robinson said DCNR and the city are not responsible for any Juneteenth cancellations and are only trying to enforce safety regulations. He says the security requirement shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as it is not a new policy for state parks.
“There have been ongoing conversations about our standard policies,” Robinson says. “There’s just been an unwillingness to comply.”
Robinson says that state and city officials will work with Juneteenth coordinators throughout the week to ensure the safety of all events. Marshall remains hopeful for a vibrant celebration despite the last-minute changes.
“This is a terrible situation,” Marshall says. “But we’re still looking forward to a good time with our national entertainment.”
This year, the main stage in Point State Park will host national music stars, including Grammy award winners Erica Campbell and Arrested Development. There will be 13 performances of various musical acts, with Friday focusing on hip-hop, Saturday celebrating R&B and Sunday showcasing gospel and soul.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will take the stage on Monday, performing for the first time at the city’s Juneteenth celebration. The orchestra will recognize Black artists’ contributions to the music industry by sharing works from gospel, jazz, folk and pop genres. A tribute to Pittsburgh jazz legend Ahmad Jamal, who died at age 92 in April, and a special appearance by local rapper Frzy are expected to be highlights of the show.
All concerts are free and open to the public, and will occur rain or shine from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
In addition to performances by nationally acclaimed artists, local musicians’ talent will also be showcased throughout the weekend. Attendees can catch concerts by the House of Soul Band, Kevin Howard Quartet, Bill Henry Band and other local jazz, soul and R&B favorites in Market Square starting at 1 p.m. daily.
The celebration will expand further into Downtown on June 17 with the Grand Jubilee Parade. The parade will leave from Freedom Corner on Crawford Street in the Hill District at 10:30 a.m., and can be viewed on Centre, Fifth and Liberty avenues through the rest of the morning.
As in past years, the parade has a special focus on celebrating voting rights. It commemorates a parade that filled Pittsburgh’s streets in 1870 as people recognized the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote.