A renewed focus on Black history has given rise to a new familiarity and recognition of Juneteenth, also referred to as Freedom Day, Black Independence Day or Jubilee Day, which is celebrated each year on June 19. Are you wondering more about its origins and traditions? Read on for some background on this momentous day, along with suggestions for celebrating it creatively.
The Origins and Rise of Juneteenth
Most Americans know that during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 which abolished slavery and declared the more than three million enslaved people living in the Confederate States to be free. However, you may not know that this news was purposefully withheld from enslaved African Americans living in Texas. It was not until Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to make the declaration that these enslaved people were finally granted their freedom – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Thus “Juneteenth” marks the day that the last enslaved people in the United States finally learned that slavery had been abolished. They immediately celebrated their freedom with prayer, feasting, song, and dance.
Also known as Emancipation Day, the Juneteenth holiday is the longest-running African-American holiday and has been commemorated by African-Americans since the late 1800s. However, it was only declared an official federal holiday in 2021. That makes it the 11th federal holiday, and the first holiday to be acknowledged since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday was added to the list in 1983.
While its declaration as a federal holiday is new, many states have officially recognized Juneteenth for much longer, beginning with Texas, which named it an official state holiday on January 1, 1980. Other states have added it as a state holiday or day of observance over the years.
Six Ways Everyone Can Celebrate Juneteenth
Whether you’re a long-time participant looking for some fresh ideas or will be observing Juneteenth for the first time this year, following are some time-honored traditions and new twists that allow people of all cultures and backgrounds to commemorate the day.
1. Join community Juneteenth events
Many cities large and small hold events to commemorate Juneteenth. Look online to find events happening in your area, such as a parade, concert, community gathering or arts and music festivals. Often these are hosted by community groups, visitor’s bureaus and/or local history museums. If you don’t find the type of event you were hoping for, commit to planning one for Juneteenth 2023. Often it just takes one dedicated person volunteering to lead, and you’re sure to find like-minded citizens who want to participate.
2. Gather friends and neighbors for traditional Juneteenth celebrations
Whether you meet at a local park or organize a block party, creating your own festivities can help raise awareness of the significance of the day among friends and family – and who knows, the event might grow each year. Common elements of traditional celebrations include serving grilled meats and red drinks, a color that evokes cultural memory of the bloodshed by our enslaved ancestors through the transatlantic slave trade. Red foods like watermelon or strawberry pie have also become part of the tradition.
“Juneteenth has persisted through the ebbs and flows of history because of so many communities’ commitment to keeping the holiday alive,” says Alliah L. Agostini, author of the children’s book, The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States. “It’s up to each of us to continue to keep the celebration and conversations about the origins of the holiday going so this important history and associated traditions aren’t lost.”
3. Absorb Black history
Find relevant episodes of historical documentaries – try starting with the renowned series American Experience which recounts events and enactments in American history. Visit a local museum with a related exhibit if you live near one or find a virtual tour online, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., or the DuSable Museum of African American History, one of the oldest museums of African-American history.
4. Celebrate and participate in Black culture
Art and music have always been a cornerstone of Black culture, and Juneteenth is the ideal opportunity to discover new artists. Consider learning more about historical figures on American Masters or through researching other Black artists, writers, musicians and more.
Interested in art? Check out The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. For music, visit the website of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee. You can also hold a film festival featuring movies that portray events in Black history or prominent, accomplished Black figures in academia, science, innovation, sports, music and more.
5. Patronize Black-owned businesses and restaurants
Money talks and spending your hard-earned cash at Black-owned businesses or restaurants is a powerful way to support entrepreneurs. To find businesses in your area, search for “your city” and “Black-owned businesses” to see if a group is maintaining a related database. As an example, Shop Black Owned features listing for eight major areas. You also can search nationally at sites like BlackOwnedAssociation.com, Support Black Owned or Black Women Owned.
6. Take a dive into history
Learning more about the history of the holiday and celebrating the achievements of Black Americans can be a catalyst to revisit your own personal history. Gather family members to recall important dates in your family heritage or research fresh details online. Use photographs and written or spoken history to recreate these memories and have someone film the discussion or take notes so you can preserve them for future generations. This could be an ideal time to dream about what you want your legacy to be. For inspiration, check out the documentary series, Finding Your Roots, which traces the ancestral histories of celebrities.
Juneteenth offers an exceptional catalyst for celebrating Black history and accomplishments, and it is a great start of your journey to be more inclusive and to participate in your community. As you plan cultural events, purchases or restaurant visits throughout the year, take a minute to consider how you can use it as an opportunity to support a Black-owned business and learn more about Black culture.