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Everything You Need to Know About Juneteenth and the Holiday's History in America

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Summer is quickly approaching. And for many, including myself, that means enjoying warmer weather, longer days, seasonal delicacies and holiday celebrations. In my home, we're kicking off the summer holiday stretch with Juneteenth. This day, which gets its name from a combination of words "June" and "nineteenth," the date on which it is celebrated, has made headlines since being made a federal holiday, but many still don't know what it is or how to celebrate. Here's where to begin:

What is Juneteenth?

Also called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, Juneteenth is the commemoration of June 19, 1865, the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, TX, learned that they were free.

While President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it only applied to people in Confederate states, not those enslaved in Union-held territories (they were not freed until the proclamation of the 13th Amendment). In Texas, a Confederate state where there was no large Union Army presence, slavery continued years after the Emancipation Proclamation — and even after the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 — as many enslaved people in the state were not aware of the news. Finally in June of 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas to tell the enslaved African-Americans living there that the Civil War had ended and that they were now free.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, Granger stayed in Texas for six weeks following the announcement and encouraged newly emancipated Texans to sign labor agreements with former plantation owners while waiting on support from the Freedmen's Bureau.

The year after emancipation, in 1866, formerly enslaved Black Texans began celebrating the event with annual "Jubilee Day" festivities. This commemoration is now known as Juneteenth.

Photo credit: Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray)/Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray)/Wikimedia Commons

Juneteenth has its own flag.

The original Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF) founder, Ben Haith. While the Juneteenth flag has the same colors as the American flag, it is a unique symbol of American freedom and Black history.

Photo credit: Mike Tré/Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Mike Tré/Wikimedia Commons

The original red, white and blue design later underwent revisions in the 2000s, and the date June 19, 1865 was added to the flag. According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, the Juneteenth flag includes an exaggerated star of Texas “bursting with new freedom throughout the land.”

Is Juneteenth a national holiday?

While Juneteenth has been celebrated since the late 1800s, it was not legally recognized as a national holiday until June 17, 2021 when President Joe Biden signed a bill officially designated June 19 as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in America. Over the decades, many states recognized Juneteenth, but not all observed it as an official holiday. For example, in 1980, Democratic state representative Al Edwards and the Texas Legislature made Juneteenth an official state holiday. When Joe Biden finally signed the bill designating June 19 as a federal holiday, Texas native, retired teacher, activist, and honorary co-chair of the national Juneteenth Legacy Project, Opal Lee was present at the signing.

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Early celebrations involved helping newly-freed men with voting instructions. Today, traditions include rodeos, public readings, voter registration efforts, parades, community gatherings, street fairs, fishing and more.

Alliah L. Agostini, author of The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery (Quarto Kids), and Buffalo, NY native, says that the city of Buffalo has been celebrating Juneteenth since 1976. “An activist group, the BUILD organization, launched Juneteenth in Buffalo as a ‘culturally relevant’ freedom celebration and alternative to the Bicentennial, and it grew to become the third largest Juneteenth nationwide,” says Agostini.

Following the tradition of original Texas celebrations, “the Buffalo festival has been an all-encompassing one with thousands of attendees, dozens of vendors, book giveaways, underground railroad tours, an epic three-hour parade, and much more!” continues Agostini.

But Juneteenth celebrations also wouldn’t be complete without food, a tradition that dates back to 1872, when Black leaders in Texas raised money to purchase a plot of land to hold Juneteenth celebrations. These leaders had to solidify special Juneteenth sites, for many communities would not allow for celebration on public property. Juneteenth is typically celebrated with meals of red food and drink, such as hibiscus tea, watermelon, strawberry shortcake, red beans and rice, red velvet cake and strawberry soda, to symbolize strength and courage. These specialties often appear alongside staples like collard greens, barbecue and tea cakes. “For African Americans especially, Juneteenth is a day of education, reflection, cultural appreciation and hope for true liberation,” says St. Louis-based culinary researcher Robin Caldwell.

But Juneteenth is much more than a celebration.

Now, 157 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the recent rising school book bannings and anti-critical race theory rhetoric have once again sparked conversation about systemic anti-Black racism, critical dialogue about long-standing racial disparities and acknowledgment of the overall historical mistreatment of Black Americans.

Photo credit: Kayla Lupean
Photo credit: Kayla Lupean

Given the far-reaching changes that have happened the few past years, Juneteenth celebrations are sure to resonate in new ways in 2022. “Celebration is not without understanding how we got here,” says Caldwell.

Ways to Commemorate Juneteenth This Year

Whether you plan to enjoy Juneteenth from the comfort of your own home or venture out, here are a few more family-friendly ideas for celebrating.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Relax and reflect.

Juneteenth falls on a Sunday this year. If possible, take the day to gather with loved ones and your community.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Educate yourself.

Watch Freedom on Juneteenth, an original theatrical production film by Karamu House, the oldest Black theater company in the United States. Or read books about the history of Juneteenth with your kids such as Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper or Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth by Alice Faye Duncan).

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Patronize a Black-owned restaurant or business.

Dine in or order takeout from a restaurant, or shop Black-owned brands.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Attend in-person or virtual events.

Many museums, such as the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, offer special programming.

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