Everything To Know About Juneteenth, An Integral Day In Black History

From its historical significance to how we celebrate today

By Ashley Oken

Juneteenth marks more than the commemoration of the final emancipation of those who have been enslaved in the United States. It honors a new milestone of freedom for Black Americans and a day of reflection on their achievements. Falling on June 19 each year, it’s a day when we step back and make an effort to understand the ongoing effects of slavery and people’s abilities to overcome.

The history of Juneteenth is not taught in most schools, so we’re here to catch you up. In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing the abolition of slavery and the release of more than 3 million enslaved people living in the Confederate states. However, not everyone got the memo. More than two years later, word of freedom reached those in Galveston, Texas by way of General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers arriving in the city on June, 19, 1865. The men presented an order freeing them, effectively ending slavery in all 50 states. The celebrations that followed would serve as the basis for Juneteenth.

Although the release of enslaved people in Texas was a sign of progress, considerable barriers continued to impede the freedom of Black Americans decades after the Civil War ended. This period saw a wave of segregative restrictions and violence in the practice of lynching, discriminatory housing policies, and mass incarceration. Though Black Americans have been out of bondage for over 150 years, freedom and justice are still elusive. The expansive movement for Black lives has emerged in recent years in response to an epidemic of police brutality and systemic racism still plaguing the United States.

Just a little over one year after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, this year’s Juneteenth is more pertinent than ever. It is a reminder that Black Americans have created lives, culture, and families worth celebrating every day. Here is everything you need to know about this important holiday and a few ways you can honor it.

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Juneteenth goes by other names.

A combination of “June” and “nineteenth” in honor of the day that Granger announced the abolition of slavery in Texas, the holiday is also known as “Freedom Day,” “Liberation Day,” “Jubilee Day,” and “Emancipation Day.” In its early years, descendants of formerly enslaved people often made the annual journey to Galveston to celebrate the holiday in its birthplace.

There are numerous theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation was not enforced in Texas.

Struggling to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s declaration and the moment it reached those still enslaved in Galveston, some have speculated that Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories abound, too, such as that the original messenger was killed to prevent information from being transmitted, that the federal government suppressed the message to get a final cotton harvest out of enslaved workers, and or that Lincoln’s proclamation was unable to be enforced in rebel states before the end of the war. None have been corroborated.

The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

The Juneteenth flag is half red and half blue with a star in the middle, which serves as a reminder that enslaved people and their descendants were and are Americans. It is part of an annual flag-raising ceremony in Galveston. Representing a star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land on the “horizon” of red and blue fields, the flag is a symbol of new sovereignty for Black people.

Juneteenth celebrations declined in popularity during the Jim Crow era until the beginning of the civil rights movement.

The expansion of segregation laws in the late 1800s and early 20th century made it difficult to gather in parks and public spaces where Juneteenth could be celebrated properly. The 1968 Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., a demonstration for economic justice for people of diverse backgrounds planned by Martin Luther King Jr., was purposely scheduled to coincide with the holiday.

Following the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, not everyone immediately found freedom.

Not every state or territory chose to follow Lincoln’s orders to free enslaved people, leaving roughly 250,000 Black Americans without knowledge of their freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation also did not apply to enslaved people in the border states Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware which had not joined the Confederacy. Due to not wanting to tempt them into joining the Confederacy, President Lincoln chose not to include them in the Proclamation.

The period after Juneteenth is known as “the scatter.”

Newly free people were reluctant to remain with their former masters, even if pay was involved, leading many to leave before Granger had finished making the official announcement on their emancipation. However, some stayed behind, fearing for the welfare of themselves and their families. The period that followed was called “the scatter,” a time when many formerly enslaved people left Texas and flocked to the North in search of family members and more welcoming accommodations.

Emancipation Park in Houston was bought specifically to celebrate Juneteenth. 

The day was first celebrated in Austin in 1866 under the charge of the Freedman’s Bureau. In 1872, Black leaders raised $1,000 to purchase 10 acres in Houston, now known as Emancipation Park, to honor the holiday. It was the only public park and swimming pool in the city’s Third Ward area that was open to Black people until the 1950s.

Some cities and groups have Miss Juneteenth contests. 

The Miss Juneteenth contest takes place around the country. It is a pageant where teenage girls vie for a scholarship to any historically Black college or university. It’s chronicled in the Netflix drama Miss Juneteenth, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s directorial debut starring Nicole Beharie as a former Miss Juneteenth of Fort Worth, Texas and single mom of a teenage daughter who wants to right her wrongs.

Juneteenth is a federal holiday.

There has been a growing movement pushing the American government to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. In February 2021, lawmakers reintroduced a bill titled the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which recently passed Congress. President Joe Biden signed the bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday on June 17.

Red foods are customary on Juneteenth. 

The color red is a symbol of the resilience and determination of formerly enslaved people, so cuisine such as watermelons, cherry pie, red velvet cake, hot dogs, red-hued juice, and strawberries are perfect for a holiday feast. Soul food, such as collard greens or mac and cheese, is appropriate fare, as well.

There are many ways to celebrate Juneteenth. 

Historical reenactments, studying Black history, reading the Emancipation Proclamation, and singing regional tunes such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are common ways to honor Juneteenth. Celebrations can also take the form of picnics, cookouts, block parties, shooting fireworks, and street fairs. Since Black communities face disproportionate effects of environmental racism, organizing a community cleanup can help rein in pollution and decrease harm for environmental factors while making life healthier for all. Party, eat good food, and reflect on history — with a purpose.

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