A COURIER SPECIAL REPORT: Some 30 years ago, WAMO began ‘Juneteenth’ celebrations in Pittsburgh

JUNETEENTH WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE SUMMER FOR A GENERATION OF PITTSBURGHERS WHO CHERISHED RADIO STATION WAMO IN THE ‘90S. IN THE PHOTO AT RIGHT IS BEYONCE KNOWLES AS DESTINY’S CHILD PERFORMED AT WAMO’S JUNETEENTH, AND IN THE PHOTO AT LEFT WERE WAMO’S NIGHT SHOW DJS IN THE LATE ‘90s, TEE JAY AND DJ BOOGIE, WITH FANS. (PHOTOS COURTESY KIKI BROWN/WAMO) 

Courier takes a historical look at Juneteenth in Pittsburgh

Before Highmark Stadium and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds…

Before the “T” went underwater and over to the North Side…

Before they renamed the stadium “Cupples” Stadium…

There was something that thousands of African Americans attended each June, but the vast majority of the young people who attended never understood the significance of; WAMO’s “Juneteenth” celebration.

THE FIRST JUNETEENTH CELEBRATION IN PITTSBURGH

The date was Saturday, June 19, 1993. A nice day outside. If you were WAMO general manager Alan Lincoln, it was the perfect day to make history, as WAMO set up a stage in a parking lot used for a Farmers Market on the North Side, near the old Allegheny Center Mall and the current Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. 

It was promoted as WAMO’s “Juneteenth” celebration, and in addition to local talent, the main attractions on that day were Super Cat and female R&B group Sudden Change.

“We knew ‘Juneteenth’ was celebrated more in the South and we brought it to Pittsburgh, we wanted to see how it would go,” voiced Jay Jay Stone, the former WAMO night and afternoon personality who was at that very first Juneteenth celebration in 1993. “It actually blew our minds that folks really came out to support it.”

There are some people that remember Pittsburgh’s very first Juneteenth celebration, thanks to WAMO.

However, the second one, in 1994, is when it really caught on, when WAMO decided to hold its Juneteenth celebration at what was known as South Stadium on the South Side. It was an event that ran all day, where people were able to interact with different vendors, have fun activities for the kids, and witness live music performances. In that year, June 19, the actual date of Juneteenth, was a Sunday. Those who spoke with the New Pittsburgh Courier for this story recalled the WAMO event at South Stadium occurred the day prior, on Saturday, June 18.

By the end of the night, Pittsburgh could say that “Juneteenth” was officially “a thing” in the city. But it also received bad press, as there were reports of fights among some of the young people in and around the stadium that night. It even had some public officials on local television calling for a WAMO event of that magnitude not to be permitted on the South Side again.

Undeterred, WAMO management and ownership, which was entirely local, continued with its Juneteenth celebrations, eventually moving it to the old I.C. Light Amphitheatre, a block or so away from Station Square on the South Side. Highmark Stadium currently sits where the I.C. Light Amphitheatre stood.

WAMO’S JUNETEENTH CELEBRATION…

By then, from 1995-99, WAMO would feature more of the Hip-Hop artists during the day, while the night would be reserved for older audiences. This had Black youth from all sides of town converging on Downtown early in the afternoon to jump on the “T,” Pittsburgh’s subway, to go across the Monongahela River to the South Side’s Station Square “T” stop. Back in those days, the “T” only went to the mostly-White South Hills and not the North Side, like it does today, which meant not too many Blacks would ride the “T.” But for WAMO’s Juneteenth, those subways were packed with young African Americans who couldn’t wait to get to the amphitheater.

Marlon Martin was at WAMO’s Juneteenth in 1994. Martin, the current WAMO 107.3 Sunday Gospel host, had just started working with WAMO (then at 105.9 FM) in 1994 and eventually worked his way to morning show co-host on WAMO with The Breakfast Jam under the name, Sean Richards. He told the Courier he remembered the big stage that was in the middle of the stadium, and what a large stadium it was to him. Things were very scattered due to the large space.

FORMER WAMO PERSONALITY BLAKK STEEL (TOP) AND CURRENT WAMO 107.3 PERSONALITY KIKI BROWN (BELOW CENTER) WERE AT WAMO’S JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS IN THE LATE ‘90s.

As for the word “Juneteenth,” Martin had never heard of the word until WAMO’s event. And he never knew the meaning of “Juneteenth,” even when he was on the stage with his morning show mates, Sly Jock and Taylor Diaz, at the I.C. Light Amphitheatre in the mid-’90s.

He wasn’t alone. A number of people the Courier spoke with said even though they attended those WAMO events, the actual “significance” of “Juneteenth” didn’t cross their minds.

“I actually thought it was a play on ‘June’ and ‘teenth,’” Martin told the Courier. “I didn’t even know the significance of the 19th.”

YES, THE ORIGINAL DESTINY’S CHILD MEMBERS TOOK TO THE WAMO JUNETEENTH STAGE AT THE OLD I.C. LIGHT AMPHITHEATRE IN THE LATE ‘90s. (PHOTO COURTESY KIKI BROWN/WAMO)

THE BREAKFAST JAM AT JUNETEENTH—TAYLOR DIAZ, SEAN RICHARDS, SLY JOCK

WAMO management obviously did, which is why WAMO’s Juneteenth events were always held right around the 19th of June each year. And over that time period, Pittsburgh fans were treated to artists like Destiny’s Child, Common, LL Cool J, Yolanda Adams, Monifah, Total, Patra, Donell Jones, Chante Moore and 112.

A CLASSIC PHOTO OF FORMER WAMO PERSONALITIES SUCH AS HURRICANE DAVE, JAMMIN’ JOHN ANTHONY AND JAY JAY STONE WITH 1993 WAMO JUNETEENTH PERFORMER, SUPER CAT, FAR RIGHT.

 

As a teen, Emmai Alaquiva was one of the thousands who attended WAMO’s Juneteenth on the South Side. “It gave me a sense of community that I didn’t necessarily get from all the other festivals in the region,” the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker told the Courier.

“Now that I know I was part of (WAMO’s Juneteenth), I feel a sense of agency in my spirit to continue that legacy,” Alaquiva added. 

THE BREAKFAST JAM—FORMER WAMO MORNING TEAM OF   TAYLOR DIAZ, SLY JOCK AND SEAN RICHARDS

“We had so many fans, so many people tuned in every morning to listen to The Breakfast Jam because we did a lot of funny stuff, a lot of crazy antics, characters, and it brought a lot of energy to Pittsburgh,” Martin told the Courier. “So to be out there on the big stage with the WAMO family and fans, it was really amazing.”

WAMO’S JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS….PACKED…IN THE 90s…(PHOTOS BY KIKI BROWN/WAMO)

If you’re an African American between the ages of 39 and 48, you probably were in high school during WAMO’s Juneteenth days. And if you didn’t get a chance to attend one of the events, chances are someone in your friend circle did attend. After all, it was only $1.06 to get into the WAMO Juneteenth celebration, even though in the later years, some of the night concerts had a higher ticket price.

KELLY ROWLAND AND BEYONCE KNOWLES OF DESTINY’S CHILD AT WAMO’S JUNETEENTH…

When WAMO’s Juneteenth celebration officially ended is unknown, as the festival became known as “Summer Jam” come the turn of the 21st century and one could say, in recent years, “WAMO Day.” But from mid-2009 until 2011, there was no WAMO at all, as Sheridan Broadcasting Company decided to exit the local radio wars and sell the 106.7 FM signal to St. Joseph’s Missions for nearly $9 million.

FORMER WAMO PERSONALITIES ANJI CORLEY AND JAY JAY STONE WERE PART OF SOME OF WAMO’S JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS.

In the years that followed after WAMO ended its Juneteenth celebrations, there would be a spatter of a Juneteenth celebration here and there by some Pittsburgh Black organizations, but nothing that was anywhere as impactful as WAMO’s events.

B. MARSHALL

In 2013, William “B.” Marshall came along and started his version of Pittsburgh’s Juneteenth celebration, at Stage AE on the North Side, where, as Marshall tells it, there weren’t even 100 people who came out. But over the years, the Stop The Violence Pittsburgh/Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth Celebration grew to over 1,000 people at Market Square, Downtown, in 2017, and then when it moved to Point State Park in 2018, the numbers became the numbers you’d see at a sold-out Pirates baseball game.

“We never thought that (it would get that big), but we were persistent and we have enjoyed the growth and the development,” B. Marshall told the Courier exclusively in 2023.

Throughout the years that B. Marshall has held his Juneteenths, he’s watched the City of Pittsburgh, notably former mayor Bill Peduto, make Juneteenth an official holiday in the city. Then, in 2021, President Joe Biden signed the necessities to make Juneteenth a federal holiday (June 19). So, if you get the day off on June 19 and you still get paid, you know why…

Nowadays, of course, Juneteenth is well-known. Its significance is that it marked the end of slavery for all African Americans in the country, when, on June 19, 1865, Gordon Granger, in Galveston, Tex., read “General Order No. 3,” “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from an executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The order came two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which attempted to free slaves in Confederate states but didn’t have the legal power to terminate slavery. Six months after “Juneteenth,” the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, officially abolishing slavery in the U.S.

B. Marshall’s Juneteenth celebration, which spans three days this year (June 14-16, 2024) at Point State Park, Downtown, also includes a Grand Jubilee Juneteenth Parade, which occurs, Saturday, June 15, through Downtown. It’s now one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country. This year’s national artists scheduled to grace the Point State Park stage are: Beanie Sigel, Freeway and Arrested Development (Friday evening); Elle Varner, Brownstone and Keke Wyatt (Saturday evening); and Kelly Price and Stokley (Sunday evening). Hip-Hop legend Master P is one of the grand marshals of the parade. All of the events at the Point for Juneteenth are free.

The Borough of Swissvale is holding its third-annual Juneteenth celebration at Les Getz Memorial Park from noon to 8 p.m., Sunday, June 23, featuring The Bill Henry Band, The Flow Band, and Rico Blu, along with a bike giveaway and other activities for kids.

“We want to celebrate all members of our community, and we think it’s important for people here on the East End to have something that’s easily accessible that they can have fun at,” said one of the Swissvale Juneteenth organizers, Shawn Alfonso-Wells. “Over here, we have a lot of people where it’s very comfortable for us, we have plenty of parking, we see our neighbors…for us, in terms of really being embedded in the community and showing Swissvale love for the different things that we’re doing, that’s why it’s important (for Swissvale to hold a Juneteenth celebration).”

Other Juneteenth celebrations in the Pittsburgh region include a celebration at the Homewood YMCA on Friday, June 14, from 3 to 6 p.m., presented by the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh. It will feature live entertainment, a kids’ zone, and speakers Rev. Cornell Jones, Leon Ford and Jason Rivers; a celebration in McKees Rocks, presented by Focus on Renewal, on Saturday, June 22, from noon to 4 p.m. next to the Roxian Theatre. The event features a foam machine, other activities for kids, performances and a DJ; a Juneteenth Black-owned Business Fair on Wednesday, June 19, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Fairview Park in Delmont, Westmoreland County, presented by the Greensburg-Jeanette NAACP; and a Freedom Day Celebration on Wednesday, June 19, from noon to 8 p.m. at Kulcher Kitchen & Bar, 2526 East Carson St., South Side, featuring performances, DJs, vendors, food and cocktails. The event is presented by Sheresa McCauley/Twisted Vision Company.

The City of Pittsburgh’s official Juneteenth celebration will occur on Saturday, June 29, at the Greenwood Plan Building, on Smithfield Street, featuring a number of local artists and performances.

As Juneteenth continues to see more celebrations in the Pittsburgh region year after year, it was the brainchild of Pittsburgh’s historic Black radio station that initially brought Juneteenth celebrations to the city. It’s because of WAMO’s Juneteenth that Beyonce first performed in Pittsburgh. It’s because of WAMO’s Juneteenth that Black parents and grandparents across the city are connected to those memories of flooding the South Side in their youth to celebrate their culture.

“At that time and space in my life, it was like being on top of the world, to be honest,” said Tee Jay, whose claim to fame was as co-host of WAMO’s night show in the late ‘90s with DJ Boogie. Fans swarmed Tee Jay and DJ Boogie when they saw them at those Juneteenth celebrations in the late ‘90s, as the occasional sound of fireworks boomed from across the way at Three Rivers Stadium when the Pirates would hit a home run.

“WAMO, at that time, ruled Pittsburgh,” Tee Jay told the Courier. “Everybody listened to WAMO…WAMO was literally the heartbeat of the city…so being a part of that, being one of the featured jocks, it was great. Certainly some of the highlights of my life.”

Who’s leading some of the 2024 Juneteenth events?

B. MARSHALL’S JUNETEENTH, JUNE 14-16, POINT STATE PARK

FANTASY ZELLARS, CITY OF PITTSBURGH JUNETEENTH, JUNE 29, GREENWOOD PLAN BLDG.

SHAWN ALFONSO-WELLS WITH ANGELA STRIBLING, SWISSVALE JUNETEENTH, JUNE 23

SHERESA MCCAULEY, FREEDOM DAY CELEBRATION, JUNE 19, 2526 EAST CARSON ST.

 

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