Speakers blared across Perry Square Saturday night. A crowd of people danced in front of the stage. Tents surrounded the area, local businesses peddling their wares.

Angela McNair, coordinator for Erie's Juneteenth block party, sees the holiday as a chance to educate on the past while celebrating the present and future.

"it's a celebration of African American heritage," said McNair. "It's a celebration of our community."

Mabeline "The Artist" hosted her first museum exhibit on Thursday night to kick off Juneteenth celebrations in Erie for 2023. 'Breaking Free' is the first permanent show of many to come at the Historical Institute of Culture & the African American Experience (HICAAE).

"I think whenever you bring the community together for something positive like a Juneteenth celebration," said Mabeline. "That's something that everyone's going to create some positive memories and want to be a part of in the years to come."

While Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, the celebration's history--both nationally and in Erie-- predates President Biden's signature.


Origins & Evolution

Umeme Sababu, American History professor at Edinboro University, worked through the origins of Juneteenth, and how the celebration has evolved.

"In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation was announced by president Abraham Lincoln," said Sababu. "In that emancipation, it stated that all those enslaved persons residing in the rebellious territories would be now and forever free."

That was publicly announced January 1st.

It was not until the teen days of June in 1985-- 2 and 1/2 years later-- that slaves in Galveston, Texas were told they were free.

"Some were shocked. They'd been in slavery for 200 years," said Sababu. "There were others of course who prayed, and shouted 'now we are free'"

The Galveston community celebrated Juneteenth the very next year.

"They began to celebrate in Texas, and then it moved to South Carolina, then to Louisiana."

That expansion continued through the 1869s and 70s. As time passed though, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other inequalities subdued the holiday's popularity.

"Although things changed, now African Americans were free, it still did not mean they were able to enjoy their freedom," said Sababu.

The celebration of emancipation also took a back seat.

"During the Plessy v Ferguson decision of segregation," said Sababu. "-and probably from 1890 to 1920 it had began to decrease."

The fight for freedom was fought on many fronts, and WWI brought a comeback of Juneteenth. Then,

"After WWII and the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, as a result of Brown v Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we see the dramatic increase of the celebration across the country," said Sababu, who sees many purposes behind celebrating the holiday.

"it's about not simply celebrating, but also discussing those things that are very important to the African American community that we can talk about now. Connect the past to the present."

Juneteenth in Erie

In Erie, some of the first citywide Juneteenth celebrations took place from 1996 to 1998.

Sababu helped organize those initial events. But while Juneteenth had returned in some regions, it was still not widely recognizable. The initial Erie celebrations died off.

"Its difficult to galvanize people to celebrate something that they're not very familiar with," said Sababu. "or maybe wasn't seen as important or not knowledgeable about."

Angela McNair held onto childhood memories of the holiday though, and in 2013-- she organized it's comeback.

"it was exciting, but it was intimidating, because it was big shoes to fill." said McNair.

Several organizations attached to the event, and it has only continued to grow.

"I've grown up here, I've watched, I've learned, I've saw," said McNair. "And I just want to carry on the torch and don't want to leave any flames unlit when it comes to African American heritage and history in Erie, Pennsylvania."