WV Press Staff Report
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia celebrated Juneteenth on the steps of the State Capitol on Saturday, with an impressive assortment of vendors and bounce houses, and an even more impressive lineup of performers.
The celebration featured musicians and spoken-word artists, such as, Simply Shanell, Logical, The Heavy Hitters, Delkat Duverney, Da Front Porch, Mark and Kingston Price, Jon Jon Hairston & Kingston Price Band, and Jamela “North Star” Brown. Grammy-nominated Dru Hill – an R&B group whose members include SisQo, Nokio, and Scola, among others – were the evening’s headline performers.
Earlier in the day, the City of Charleston hosted a Juneteenth event in Slack Plaza in the city’s downtown area.
Saturday evening at the Capitol, before beginning his routine, comedian Kevin Jackson told those in attendance, “When Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves, all the states abided except for Texas.”
“Two years later, Texas still had enslaved people,” Jackson continued. “So, the president sent 2,000 Union soldiers to free those slaves. It was approximately 250,000 slaves in Galveston Bay, Texas. And there was one brother in the cane patch who knew it all along, and he said, ‘I told y’all, I been staring at these hush puppies for two years!’”
“That went over somebody’s head, but y’all will get it later,” Jackson added with a laugh. “Anyway, Juneteenth is not all about black freedom, it involves everybody – white people, Puerto Ricans, it don’t matter. We’re all in this together.”
Another of the day’s performers was Huntington-native Aristotle Jones, known to many across West Virginia as the “Appalachian Soul Man.” Saturday’s performance marked Jones’ final stop on his June “For the Record” tour.
Jones performed three songs for the crowd, including his single, “West Virginia Hills.” However, before playing it, Jones spoke about how the black experience in West Virginia is unlike anywhere else – a statement which Jones expanded upon while speaking with members of the media after his set had concluded.
“There are a lot of different experiences and representations of blackness in American culture,” Jones said. “A lot of people don’t really think about blackness in rural communities. The culture in West Virginia – we’re on top of each other because everybody lives in small valleys or hills and hollers, so everybody had to learn how to get along and tolerate things that aren’t exactly how we might like them to be.”
“I think, a lot of the time, the way that the media portrays blackness in America is through the narrow-band of representation of, say, inner-city blackness, or exceptional blackness as with athletes,” Jones continued. “The everyday, rural values of hard work, dedication, determination – family values, like love, and hope, and perseverance – those are also Appalachian and West Virginian values.”
Jones explained that, as someone born, raised, and currently living in rural America, he feels a responsibility to “carry that (rural values) forward.”
“It’s a legacy, not just of West Virginia, but as a legacy as being a black person from West Virginia,” Jones added.
Jones, who now resides in the Morgantown-area, is proud of West Virginia’s diverse history, and deep cultural-contributions to not only music, but to society as a whole.
“The way that [other areas] look at West Virginia, in their mind they’re not seeing a diverse group of individuals,” Jones said. “You might think of New York City, and think that there’s all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and cultures blending, but people don’t really think that about West Virginia, or the Appalachian Mountains. However, there is a very rich history of black cultural and creative contributors who were from here.”
Jones referenced Johnnie Johnson, the Fairmont-born pianist who served as Chuck Berry’s famed classic “Johnny B. Goode,” as an example of those contributors, explaining that, “A lot of American music was stemming from rural populations, but a lot of people moved to the cities in order to find work and not be on the farms.”
“For the folks who stayed on the farms in rural areas and made lives, there is still a rich cultural heritage that’s no less American, and no less black,” Jones added.
As far as performing on the steps of West Virginia’s Capitol building, Jones said, “It means the world to me.”
“It’s not something that I ever would have thought I would have the opportunity to do,” Jones noted. “With my song “West Virginia Hills,” even when I put it out, it wasn’t an aspiration of mine to perform it here.”
“But it definitely creates that singular moment when it really makes me feel like I belong,” Jones added. “There is a path, and a cultural heritage and history that I get to be at the forefront of. I see the younger children and I get to be the example for them to see at the State Capital of West Virginia- a state born from the struggles of the Civil War.”
“Here we are, celebrating freedom for all Americans on the steps of the State Capitol,” Jones concluded. “What a great day, and what a momentous occasion.”