Juneteenth Festival celebrated at the Penn Museum

In partnership with the nonprofit Forum Philly, the free inaugural event featured community-building activities, workshops, and performances in advance of the June 19 holiday.

drum circle at juneteenth celebration
Hundreds of people celebrated the inaugural Juneteenth Festival at the Penn Museum on Saturday in advance of the June 19 federal and state holiday. Created with community partners, the daylong celebration featured a variety of activities, including a drumming workshop led by Philadelphia artist Karen Smith (right).

Hundreds of people attended the inaugural Juneteenth Festival at the Penn Museum Saturday under sunny skies and mild temperatures perfect for the activities, performances, and workshops centered in two outdoor courtyards. 

The celebration commemorated the importance of June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were free, more than two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Juneteenth was recognized as an official federal holiday by President Joe Biden in 2021 and a state holiday by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019. Several Juneteenth events were held in Philadelphia during the weekend.

Mayor Cherelle Parker with Museum Director Chris Woods
Local and state officials spoke during a festival event, including (from left): Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum; Malcolm Byrd, founder and CEO of Forum Philly; Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker; Penn Museum Chief Diversity Officer Tia Jackson-Truitt; and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Khalid Mumin.

The family friendly Juneteenth Festival, created in collaboration with the Philadelphia nonprofit Forum Philly, was the first of what organizers and partners hope will be an annual tradition and a way to encourage visitors year-round. An estimated 800 people attended.

In public remarks, Malcolm T. Byrd, founding president and chief executive of Forum Philly, said, “Juneteenth is worthy of observance and celebration, to be able to embody as an American holiday that speaks to the very soul of our ideals of democracy, for the essence of liberty and freedom, and a resolve to resist every effort that would oppress and cause injustice to happen amongst the American people.” 

Byrd is a member of the Penn Museum’s Community Advisory Group, which advocates for community-informed partnerships. The Museum, partnered with Byrd, Forum Philly, and other community partners on the event.

“We hope people will grow their awareness of the significance of Juneteenth, and how it can be a source and a means for growing and promoting community,” said Byrd. “It is an American holiday, and an American experience that people can have and benefit from.”

Tia Jackson-Truitt, chief diversity officer and the head of community engagement at the Museum, said, “We’re working across campus and the community to make this a collaborative approach. Our goal is to highlight the story of Juneteenth to a large, diverse audience so that as many people as possible can learn about it. The story of Juneteenth is an important part of American history that everyone should know about.”

Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum, said one of his top priorities is to expand the Museum’s work with the local community, with programs and events like the Juneteenth Festival “so young people can connect stories of the past with their own experiences.” To remain relevant, he said in public remarks, “museums need to provide spaces for co-creation, where the community can explore their own cultural traditions and traditions of others in the context of our galleries.” 

Penn Museum’s galleries, exhibitions, and outdoor spaces were open and available at no charge during the festival. Central to the celebration was the historic Stoner Courtyard garden with performances and activities and workshops. A community marketplace featured Black-owned businesses, and food trucks served a variety of dishes. 

kid activities at juneteenth celebration at the penn museum
families celebrate at the penn museum
jump rope at the juneteenth celebration
Most of the performances and workshops for the Juneteenth Festival were hosted in the Museum’s historic Stoner Courtyard Garden, along with the food trucks, while other activities and vendors were in the garden outside the main entrance. Formal remarks, kicked off with drums in the Museum’s Harrison Auditorium.

More than a dozen people, from youngsters to seniors, came together for a drumming workshop led by Philadelphia’s Karen Smith, who said it is her mission to make communities aware of history and culture. “I love what they’re doing here at the Museum. I love that they’re opening up to the community more and more so people can come in and appreciate all the things that are here,” Smith said. “That’s why I definitely wanted to be a part of it.”

Other activities included line dancing, double Dutch jump rope, and quilt-making. Performances included the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad, the Black Boys Makin’ Noise storytelling group, and stories with Auntie Jo Jo. There were two screenings of a documentary film from the Annenberg Public Policy Center that features Penn faculty and others discussing Juneteenth. The Museum’s “Daily Dig” 15-minute pop-up talks held in the galleries offered insight into selected artifacts. Penn Medicine provided wellness screenings and information.

As part of the festivities, Forum Philly’s Juneteenth Honors Program celebration was held in the Museum’s Harrison Auditorium in the afternoon. The program highlighted the contributions of K-12 students and educators from across the region who have participated in Juneteenth-related programming and projects, such as essays, visual arts, dance, and poetry during the school year. 

The story of Juneteenth is an important part of American history that everyone should know about. Tia Jackson-Truitt, Penn Museum Chief Diversity Officer.

Several local and state officials attended and spoke. The theme “hopes and dreams” was repeated throughout the remarks, including those by Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker. “Do you think that on June the 19th in 1865 the ancestors ever thought that we’d be here today celebrating their real-life lived experience?” she said. “I am so proud that we come together as it relates to our humanity to recognize and show support of and for the history of a people who chose to survive.” 

The keynote speaker, Khalid Mumin, Pennsylvania education secretary, said he learned about Black history and freedom at home from his family. “And when you think of Juneteenth and the complexities of that continual pursuit for freedom, the more perfect union, it’s all about liberty, equality, equity, and social justice,” Mumin said. “We must continue to reflect on our history. This process is ongoing and continuous.”

Philadelphia City Council member Jamie Gauthier said she believes Juneteenth is as significant as Independence Day in the U.S. “because it commemorates the day when all Americans could finally call themselves free citizens.” She added that Juneteenth is “an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the fight for freedom and justice for all Americans.”

When the Museum hosted a Juneteenth Honors Program private celebration last year, it became clear that people want to learn more, Jackson-Truitt said. She and Byrd then talked about how to make the holiday and its history more accessible and inclusive, and sketched out the culture day that became the Juneteenth Festival, with “fun, food, celebration, and education.” 

The Museum created the Community Advisory Board about two years ago. “It is an intentional effort to make sure that we are inclusive, accessible and we integrate community voices into our decision making,” said Jackson-Truitt.

“I want people to feel like the Penn Museum is a space for everyone and that all are welcome,” she said. “I want people to walk away feeling a sense of community. For a lot of visitors, the Museum is their entry point into Penn's campus, an amazing, beautiful, educational entry point. All of this belongs to the city of Philadelphia.”

juneteenth at penn museum
(On flagship) The day was sunny and breezy with mild temperatures, perfect for the inaugural Juneteenth Festival in the Penn Museum’s gardens.

Support for the Juneteenth Festival was provided by the Penn Museum; Forum Philly; the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau; the School of Arts & Sciences Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics; the School of Social Policy & Practice; and Penn’s Office of Social Equity & Community.

View more photos on Flickr.