Last week, President Biden signed a new federal holiday into law: Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to emancipate the last slaves being held in the nation and to officially announce the end of the Civil War. In addition to being an official day to celebrate and reflect, a federal holiday for Juneteenth is an important opportunity for more people to learn about a day that has been commemorated by African-Americans for more than 150 years.
It wasn’t until college that I really learned about Juneteenth. Growing up in the South, I was taught a lot about certain historical figures such as Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was never discussed in school and would remain a hidden figure to me for decades. When Biden signed the holiday into law, 94-year-old Opal Lee was in the Oval Office and is now a household name.
For Opal Lee and other advocates, like civil rights icon Elaine Turner, the new federal holiday is an important symbolic victory. “Having a Juneteenth holiday is important because it recognizes the freedom that was finally granted to all African-Americans and is an opportunity to raise awareness of this significant historical date,” says Turner, who is also the founder of Heritage Tours and director of Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.
The museum has held an annual Juneteenth celebration for the past five years, with this year’s celebration featuring libations to the Ancestors, African music and drumming, singing of spirituals, poetry, spoken word, and children's story reading. The majority of visitors who come to the museum—which is housed in the location of a safe house where enslaved Africans sought refuge in their escape to freedom—have never heard of Juneteenth, according to Turner. The federal holiday will hopefully help to change that.
In Brackettville, Texas, the Black Seminoles—people with Black and Seminole Indian ancestry—have been gathering every Juneteenth since 1983. Festivities include the typical barbecue and red foods such as watermelon and red soda, which represents the blood shed by enslaved people as well nods to the fruits of West African plants like hibiscus and the kola nut consumed by the Yoruba and Kongo people enslaved in Texas. There are also other Native tribes in attendance and presentations by elders.
Cynthia Atchico, genealogist for the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery Association (SISCA) and one of the organizers of their Juneteenth celebrations, says that the new national Juneteenth holiday is an important way for all communities “to show solidarity with people of African descent in the U.S.” SISCA’s Juneteenth celebrations take place at the Seminole Scouts Museum, which also offers public tours. The museum is housed in the former “colored school” in Brackettville, the historic George Washington Carver School.
To me, this Juneteenth felt a little different with so much national focus and media attention on the date. I commemorated the holiday by taking my children on the Alexandria Underground Railroad tour offered by Manumission Tours. Based on a book by African-American abolitionist William Still, the tour highlights the stories of several enslaved people who fled slavery in Alexandria for freedom in Philadelphia. I took my children on the tour because they love learning about history, and I want to expose them to as much of it as their young minds can handle.
While Juneteenth has cultural significance for African-Americans due to shared traditions, histories, and connections across generations, it's important to remember that the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is purely symbolic. A federal holiday provides time for reflection, for relaxation, or for travel. But the fact is that a holiday can't erase generational inequality, protect voting rights, reform policing, or provide reparations. Without ongoing systemic changes in these areas, the national acknowledgement of Juneteenth can feel hollow.
In fact, according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, today “there are more African American men in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.” The truth behind this reality is that even something as ubiquitous as summer travel or daily transportation can lead to dire outcomes for African-Americans. My father, for example, tells the story of being pulled over while driving his motorcycle one morning in a mostly white part of town due to a loud muffler. Even though the officer never issued my father a ticket, he impounded the motorcycle, and when my father went to pay to retrieve it, he was sent to jail. He was nearly sent to a prison farm the next morning for 30 days and was only released after a huge effort by my grandmother.
That incident happened in Memphis in the 1960s, but it all too closely echoes today’s encounters between police and unarmed Black people in cars or other forms of transport. And it's one reason that travel has always had a depth of meaning for me. Due to the confines of Jim Crow, my parents could not freely travel across their own city, let alone the world. So, when I cross yet another border, get a stamp in my passport, or make a new friend on the road—whether in Athens, Georgia, or Athens, Greece—I walk with purpose, pride, and the understanding that generations before me could not easily, freely, or even legally do so.
Perhaps, that will be the impact of making Juneteenth a federal holiday: a national day of recognition and remembrance that honors the resilience and freedom of Black Americans.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler