Juneteenth Is a Day of Celebration and Reflection—Here's What It Means and How to Commemorate This Historic Date
Learn all about Juneteenth's history, significance, and the most meaningful ways to celebrate.
The dawning of summertime also means it's time to celebrate Juneteenth. While the holiday name of this annual celebration—a blending of the month and day, June 19—may be familiar to some, others may be left scratching their temples. For the latter, here's a brief history lesson on the origins and significance of this particular June date.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into effect, which freed enslaved people of African descent, declaring "…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…"
Great, right? The only problem: More than 250,000 enslaved folks in Texas didn't get the memo. In fact, they didn't find out the news until a full two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union troops, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, with the announcement of their freedom.
"It might seem like a small moment in time, but it is a critical moment in the long struggle to realize the promises of American democracy and freedom," explains Shennette Garrett-Scott, PhD, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Mississippi and author of the award-winning book Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal. "Juneteenth would surely have gone unmarked in our collective historical memory had it not been for the thousands of formerly enslaved people who kindled the small flame of that moment."
The Legacy of Juneteenth
Newly freed slaves in Texas celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866, making it the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. Texans have been observing the day for over 150 years now—my father, who was born in Houston in the 1940s, remembers celebrating the day in grand style as a child. However, Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, did not become an official holiday in the state of Texas until 1979. It would be 11 more years before another state, Florida, followed suit. These days, 49 states as well as the District of Columbia acknowledge the day, with Washington and Hawaii passing legislation to commemorate Juneteenth's significance just this past April 2021. South Dakota remains the one outlier.
Though efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday have not yet been successful, Garrett-Scott says that being a nationally recognized holiday is not the measure of a celebration's value or legitimacy. What's important, she says, is what recognizing and celebrating Juneteenth reveals about what it means to be an American. Its legitimacy and power lie "in the questions it forces us to ask: What are the consequences of freedom denied? What has been the value of diverse cultures to the making of America? Indeed, it should lead us all to expand Frederick Douglass' question to also ask, 'What is Juneteenth to me?'"
How Has It Changed?
The meaning and celebration has evolved over time, reflecting changes in U.S. society over the years. According to Garrett-Scott, the very earliest celebrations focused on the most important values of freed people: family, church, and citizenship. "Alongside their picnics and barbecues, African Americans discussed voting rights and encouraged participation in the political process," she says.
During the Jim Crow era—a time of legalized racial segregation—it became a holiday that reaffirmed Black culture, says Garrett-Scott. The Great Migration, during which millions of African Americans moved from rural Southern states to urban Northern and Western states, saw Southerners spread the celebration of Juneteenth across the country. After World War II, Juneteenth took on new meanings in the fight for civil rights and Black Power. For example, Garrett-Scott explains, after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the Poor People's March held Solidarity Day, a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1968, taking place five days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech, featuring singing, praying, and speakers. "The holiday became a rallying point for people across the country to celebrate Black culture and the ideals of American democracy," she says.
In the 21st century, it's celebrated by a diverse range of people and countries around the world, says Garrett-Scott. "Juneteenth, as a festival of freedom, has easily adapted to the new cultural, economic, and political realities of a diverse and global world."
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How Can You Celebrate Juneteenth?
Considering America is called the "melting pot" of the world, "we should take as many opportunities as possible both to celebrate the contributions of different groups of people to the making of the United States and to tell a more nuanced story about our shared history," says Garrett-Scott.
Juneteenth offers us a day to do just that. It's an opportunity to "reflect on the vestiges of slavery in the present day" as well as "makes you more conscious of the racial inequities that remain with us and helps you take action to eradicate them within ourselves and in our society."
To help commemorate the 156th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and celebrate the advancements of African Americans since emancipation, a quick Google search in your city will likely reveal a host of activities. For example, in Dallas, you can take part in the Juneteenth Celebration, Parade, March & Festival. In New York City, you can participate in the 12th Annual Juneteenth NY. And in Atlanta, there's the Juneteenth Atlanta Parade and Music Festival.
Here are few more ideas for enjoying a festive and meaningful Juneteenth.
Party—and Eat—With a Purpose
You can host your own celebration soirée in, say, a park or your own backyard. "Parties present powerful opportunities to reaffirm collective values," says Garrett-Scott, adding that it's an ideal time to "engage in cross-generational dialogue between youth and elders." Channel the celebrations of the past and infuse your outdoor activities with praying, singing, the re-reading of the proclamation, and, of course, good food.
Food has long been a centerpiece of Juneteenth celebrations, both the act of connecting over a delicious meal as well as the actual meal itself. "The African American community has always come together in celebration with foods prepared to be shared. Historically [this] included ingredients accessible to African Americans and based on their regional locations," explains Michiel Perry, the founder of Black Southern Belle and host of FoodNetwork.com's live digital series The Juneteenth Menu. "Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas, a tropical region, so many foods served were suitable to the climate and agriculture in the area. Today, popular foods eaten [on Juneteenth] are likely based on the region, but, of course, ingredients are more accessible."
The dishes served up on Juneteenth hold special meaning, too. "[The color] red is an integral part of Juneteenth, as it honors our African American ancestors—their bloodshed and resilience—[and] greens such as collards and turnips symbolize prosperity," Perry says. Golden cornbread and sweet potatoes, often served in pies and cobblers, represent wealth.
"For me, being in the Lowcountry, red rice and seafood are integral parts of our Juneteenth celebrations," says Perry, adding that red velvet cake is a sweet Southern staple she loves to bake with her family for the holiday.
Do Some Research
It's the perfect time to "learn more about the meaning of freedom and race in America, and especially about the legacies of slavery," Garrett-Scott says. Books are one of life's greatest teachers. A couple of Juneteenth-specific reads to turn to include Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison and On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed.
Museums, including the National Museum of African American History & Culture, can also shed light on the historical significance and complexity of slavery. You can also organize an outing to a site of significance in your community and use it as a moment to learn about a piece of the Black experience. For example in Jackson, Miss., there's Freedom Corner, the intersection of Martin Luther King Junior Drive and Medgar Evers Boulevard; and in St. Louis, Mo., there's the Old Courthouse where the landmark decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford was handed down.
Organize a Community Clean-Up
Many societies of color, particularly Black communities, face environmental racism, which means they're in greater harm from environmental factors (think: the Flint Michigan water crisis and Louisiana's Cancer Alley). Why not use Juneteenth as a day to be of service in your community, advises Garrett-Scott. Gather your friends and give back by helping to clean up some of these communities. No, picking up trash, removing debris from streams, and even planting trees won't change things overnight, but they can help rein in pollution, making living life just a little bit healthier in these areas.