An Introduction to Juneteenth: Learn About the Holiday's History and Traditions
Juneteenth is celebrated annually on June 19, and it commemorates the announcement made in Galveston, Texas, that confirmed the end of slavery in the United States of America in 1865. "The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed in 1863 but, of course, that only applied to states in the Confederacy," says Kelly Navies, museum specialist and oral historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. "It only held water if it were being enforced by the presence of union soldiers."
With Texas being the westernmost slave state and an area that lacked a strong union presence during the Civil War, it took Union General Gordon Granger's arrival on June 19, 1865, with 2,000 soldiers to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation and free those who were still enslaved. "After centuries of longing for freedom, the celebrations following this official order would serve as the foundation for the Juneteenth holiday," says Meiko Temple, the founder and creator of Meiko And The Dish.
Here's how this historic event impacted Black communities and the Juneteenth holiday as we know it celebrated today.
History of the Holiday
While the commemoration of this historic day began the following year in 1866, Navies explains that it began as a private celebration. "There were laws that were passed in Texas and Black codes that hindered African Americans [from] congregating in groups [and that] gave guidelines for how they had to continue to work, often for their previous slave owners, so it was definitely an inhibited freedom," she says. Civil rights advancements were made during the Reconstruction era; however, those gains were lost soon after as African Americans underwent extreme violence when attempting to exercise freedom. Navies notes that Juneteenth spread throughout the country and even internationally when the Great Migration began in the 1910s, which included Black people moving out of the South. "Particularly, many Texans moved to California, for example, but also different parts of the country like Oklahoma," she says. "There were African Americans who left the United States altogether and went to Mexico and celebrated el Día de los Negros, the day of the Blacks. So, it traveled with the people and evolved and was celebrated in many different ways."
By the 1960s, Juneteenth gained more widespread recognition on a national level during the peak of the Black Freedom Movement. "Some of that can be traced to the Poor People's Campaign that took place in Washington, D.C., in 1968, which brought people of all races," Navies says. "Their campaign ended on what they call Solidarity Day, which was June 19. And many people who were there were just learning about June 19 for the first time, and they took it back to their home states." Juneteenth celebrations have continued to evolve over time, but the purpose remains the same today: "Juneteenth is not just about Black history but American history and should be celebrated by all," shares Temple. "Once we collectively face and accept the truth about our country's past, we can have the open dialogue needed to progress the country forward."
Center Juneteenth around community.
Just like in the past 150 years, a traditional Juneteenth should be celebrated with a gathering of family and friends for outdoor activities, Temple shares. Navies explains that cultural expressions can differ. "In the first Juneteenth, former slaves spoke and they shared spirituals," she says. "For a contemporary Juneteenth, you'll hear all kinds of music of the diaspora, there could be soul music, there could be jazz, there could be blues, there will be some form of musical, cultural expression." Temple notes that this day can also be used to uplift African American entrepreneurs and communities as a whole, in addition to making this a priority year-round. "Juneteenth has always been about community, so I believe that incorporating some form of charity and economic empowerment by supporting Black businesses is also appropriate for celebrating the holiday," she adds. "An easy and tangible way to help given COVID restrictions."
"Celebrating Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on community, resilience, liberation, and progress made in Black America over the past century-and-a-half," says Temple. "Juneteenth also serves as a reminder of the magnitude of work that lies ahead for true racial equality and is more significant than ever, as evidenced by its resurgence and a wider acceptance by governments and corporations alike." One way to make this a reality is by looking to symbols that continue to stand the test of time, beginning with the Pan-African flag. "This comes out of Marcus Garvey and the Pan-African movement, but it's also used for Kwanzaa [with its] red, black, and green colors," Navies shares, noting that the green symbolizes land and hope, while black represents people.
There is also a red, white, and blue Juneteenth flag that symbolizes Black people gaining freedom as Americans. However, Navies adds that an important piece in both is the color red, which represents bloodshed and sacrifice from our Black ancestors. To commemorate this on Juneteenth, Navies and Temple recommend creating a menu with red food and drink, in addition to having a barbecue. "Watermelon, strawberry pies, and hibiscus tea are symbols of the countless lives lost fighting for freedom and our unwavering resilience to continue to rise and make progress," adds Temple.
Make the day a teachable moment.
Continue to make Juneteenth an educational opportunity, as well—not only to inform others about this important day, but to reflect on the changes that should still be made for the future. "Juneteenth is rarely taught in schools, but that does not alleviate our responsibility to gain understanding and pass along the full picture of this nation's long fight for freedom and equality," shares Temple. Navies says that this is vital, especially for children, no matter if you are attending an outdoor celebration or at-home festivities. She recommends looking to online resources for information and activities, reading books by Black poets and novelists (Langston Hughes and Alice Walker being some of her favorites), eating together and enjoying each other's company, and making it a priority to simply speak about Juneteenth's history and forward movement as a society.