'Black people's Fourth of July': Events celebrate Juneteenth in York County this weekend

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Artist Ophelia Chambliss, of Manchester Township, talks about the mural "Community of Color" after it is unveiled at Voni Grimes Gym in York City, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Just under 200 community members worked together in painting the project. Additional pieces will be added to the mural when funds have been raised for the adhesive. Dawn J. Sagert photo

African American history is American history — that's the message Nacole Gaines said she hopes to spread at the second-ever Juneteenth celebration in York County this Saturday.

Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of Black slaves in the United States, will be celebrated in York County through historical exhibits, music and food.

"Juneteenth Day is basically Black people's Fourth of July," said Gaines, one of four event organizers for Juneteenth York 2021. "This is how Black people celebrate their freedom. I want everybody in the city to come and celebrate with us."

This year, those interested can be part of the Juneteenth festivities, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Voni Grimes Gym, 125 E. College Ave.

The free event will feature music, dance, poetry, local vendors, educational resources and activities for children.

Artist Ophelia M. Chambliss, of Manchester Township, is photographed at York County History Center in York City, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Chambliss will be opening an exhibit at the center in June.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

Last year, the event was held during the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting certain activities and the number of people who could attend. 

Though the event is only in its second year, Juneteenth York 2021 picked up several sponsors— which has motivated and inspired Gaines to continue growing the event bigger and better in the future.

"We're giving people a little bit of culture and history about Juneteenth Day," Gaines said. "We're trying to make this as grand as it can be."

In addition to Juneteenth York 2021, the York County History Center will be launching a new exhibit four years in the works on Saturday to celebrate and highlight local Black history.

The exhibit, which will be on display until Dec. 31 in the history center's meeting hall, 250 E. Market St., was curated by Ophelia Chambliss.

"I'm excited that it all came together," Chambliss said. "I think we all have some good points on this timeline of York's Black history — I'm really hoping people come out to see it."

Through her research, Chambliss has conducted around 30 interviews and gathered visual media to tell the stories of York's Black community, particularly recounting events from their perspectives growing up in York County.

One resident Chambliss interviewed was John Jamison, who owned Brother Johns Grocery Store, formerly located at 564 N. Pershing Ave. During their interview, Jamison recalled a program for school-aged children to bring in their report cards in exchange for candy, as part of an incentive to do well in school.

Artist Ophelia M. Chambliss, of Manchester Township, is photographed with her painting titled "Peaceful Protest" which is on display at York College Center for Community Engagement in York City, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Chambliss will be opening an exhibit at York County History Center in June.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

Chambliss said small community stories like Jamison's help illustrate a larger picture of communities of color in York County.

"It's the things that we thought were important for people to know about growing up in York's Black community," Chambliss said.

During the exhibit, residents will have the chance to add their own stories, photos and history to the timeline, said Nicole Smith, the York County History Center's director of library and archives.

In addition, a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln will be available for viewing until July 3, Smith said.

"We think it's essential that people need to understand Black history to understand all of our history," Smith said. "Understanding Black history is essential to understanding our community."

Chambliss said she chose June 19 as the opening day for the exhibit — instead of during Black History Month — as a way for residents to have an opportunity to celebrate during the summer.

"We tend to lump so many things together during Black History Month," Chambliss said. "We want to celebrate Black history every day — not just February."

Citing Juneteenth as a "turning point" for American history, Chambliss said the date is important because it marks the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom.

"The significance of Juneteenth is not everybody recognized they were free until that message got to them," Chambliss said. 

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.