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Two Major Juneteenth Events in Pittsburgh Highlights more than just Petty Contention

Stop the Violence — Pittsburgh

In the heart of any community, cultural events hold a special place. They are not just moments of celebration but markers of identity, history, and collective memory. One such event is Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, which has historically been observed with great significance in many African American communities. However, what happens when a city, typically known for its grassroots Juneteenth celebrations, suddenly decides to introduce its own, government-sponsored event? The implications are far-reaching and delve into the intricate fabric of community identity and ownership.

Juneteenth, originating in Texas to mark the emancipation of enslaved people in 1865, has evolved into a nationwide celebration of freedom and African American heritage. For many cities, particularly those with sizable Black populations, Juneteenth is more than just a day; it’s a cultural touchstone, often marked by community gatherings, parades, music, food, and reflection. In such locales, independent Juneteenth events have emerged organically, often spearheaded by local activists, community leaders, or grassroots organizations. These events are not just about commemorating history but also about fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment within the community.

Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery in the United States, has recently found itself at the center of controversy in Pittsburgh. The issue arose when the City of Pittsburgh announced its own Juneteenth celebration alongside the longstanding event organized by a member of the Black community. This move has sparked debates about the role of government in cultural celebrations and the implications of such actions.

The decision by the City of Pittsburgh to host its own Juneteenth event raises questions about the appropriation of cultural heritage by governmental entities. Traditionally, Juneteenth has been a grassroots celebration organized by Black communities to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the United States. By intervening and establishing its own event, the government risks diluting the significance of Juneteenth and undermining the autonomy of the communities that have historically championed it.

CP Photo: Jared Wickerham, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto speaks during the Jubilee Parade Memorial Service and Black Voting Rights Forum on Sat., Aug. 29, 2020.

This cherished commemoration of emancipation, has found itself embroiled in controversy in Pittsburgh where debates over the ownership and execution of the celebration have reached a crescendo. At the heart of the matter lies the clash between the city of Pittsburgh which entrusted Fantasy Zellars with organizing the city-led Juneteenth event, and B. Marshall, a longstanding member of the community who has historically spearheaded Juneteenth festivities in Pittsburgh.

Fantasy Zellars, with a background in event planning and community engagement, brings a wealth of experience and expertise to her role as the organizer of the city-led Juneteenth event. Her tenure in event management, as evidenced by her LinkedIn profile, reflects a commitment to fostering inclusivity and promoting cultural heritage through celebratory gatherings. Zellars’ selection to oversee the city’s Juneteenth celebration signals a recognition of the importance of professional expertise in coordinating large-scale events while also acknowledging the need for government involvement in supporting and amplifying community initiatives.

On the other hand, B. Marshall, a revered figure within the Pittsburgh community, has long been associated with Juneteenth celebrations in the city. With a deep-seated passion for preserving Black history and culture, Marshall’s contributions to Juneteenth festivities have been instrumental in cultivating a sense of pride and solidarity among residents. His dedication to grassroots organizing, as showcased on his website, reflects a commitment to uplifting marginalized voices and reclaiming narratives of freedom and resilience.

However, tensions have arisen between Marshall and city officials, particularly regarding past issues surrounding security concerns at his Juneteenth event.

In the past, there have been reports of incidents during Marshall’s event that allegedly necessitated increased security measures. These concerns were raised by both attendees and local authorities, highlighting the importance of ensuring the safety and well-being of participants. However, Marshall has faced criticism for purportedly refusing to hire additional security personnel despite recommendations from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. This refusal has led to tensions between Marshall and city officials, exacerbating the rift between the grassroots organizer and the government.

The refusal to address security concerns raises complex questions about accountability and responsibility within the context of cultural events. While community-led initiatives like Marshall’s Juneteenth celebration play a vital role in preserving cultural heritage and fostering community solidarity, they must also prioritize the safety and security of attendees. By disregarding calls for enhanced security measures, organizers risk jeopardizing the well-being of participants and undermining the credibility of the event.

On the other hand, the City of Pittsburgh’s decision to host its own Juneteenth celebration cannot be divorced from broader considerations of representation and community engagement. While the government has a responsibility to ensure public safety and support cultural initiatives, its intervention in grassroots events raises concerns about autonomy and co-optation. By launching a separate Juneteenth celebration, the city administration risks overshadowing the efforts of community organizers like Marshall and diluting the authenticity of the celebration.

Allegations of reluctance to address these concerns have strained relations between Marshall and the government, culminating in the decision by the City of Pittsburgh to host its own Juneteenth celebration alongside Marshall’s event. This move has reignited debates over the role of government in cultural celebrations and the implications of co-optation and appropriation.

The decision by the City of Pittsburgh to appoint Zellars to organize a separate Juneteenth event alongside Marshall’s festivities has struck a nerve within the Black community, fueling perceptions of governmental overreach and co-optation of cultural traditions. Many view this move as an attempt to undermine the authority and voice of native Black Pittsburghers, casting doubt on the city’s motives and commitment to genuine community engagement.

Moreover, the appointment of an outsider to organize a culturally significant event like Juneteenth has exacerbated existing tensions and deepened feelings of distrust towards city officials. The lack of consultation with native, civilian community members further underscores concerns about transparency and accountability in decision-making processes. This growing disillusionment with the city’s actions threatens to erode trust and cooperation between government authorities and the Black community.

At its core, the controversy surrounding Zellars’ appointment reflects broader issues of representation, power dynamics, and cultural ownership within marginalized communities. By sidelining native voices and bypassing local leadership in the planning of Juneteenth celebrations, the City of Pittsburgh risks perpetuating systemic inequalities and reinforcing patterns of exclusion and marginalization.

To address these concerns and rebuild trust within the Black community, the City of Pittsburgh must prioritize genuine dialogue, collaboration, and community empowerment. This includes actively engaging with native Black Pittsburghers, acknowledging their expertise and lived experiences, and ensuring that decision-making processes are inclusive, transparent, and accountable.

Ultimately, the success of Juneteenth celebrations in Pittsburgh hinges on the city’s ability to recognize and uplift the voices of those most deeply rooted in the community’s history and culture. By centering the leadership and agency of native Black Pittsburghers, the city can honor the legacy of Juneteenth and reaffirm its commitment to fostering equity, justice, and solidarity within the Black community and beyond.

What do you think? Was the city out of line for instituting a secondary, government-led Juneteenth celebration? Does it matter who organizes cultural events as long as they happen? How do we hold both accountability to safety and preserve cultural agency?

Email us your thoughts.

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