Celebrating Juneteenth: Then and Now
In June 2021, over a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, President Biden signed a bill establishing June 19th as “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” For generations, Juneteenth has been celebrated across the United States. Yet, many Americans, especially those who are not African American, know very little about it.
The holiday dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and notified a quarter of a million enslaved people in the state of their emancipation– a full two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the Confederate Army surrendered to Union forces in Virginia. Formerly enslaved people in Texas coined the date “Juneteenth” and the first celebration was on its anniversary on June 19, 1866. As the diaspora of 250,000 newly-emancipated people from Texas and their descendants settled throughout the South and then in Northern and Western cities during the Great Migration, the holiday spread throughout the country. Every June 19th since, many African American communities have organized Juneteenth parades, festivals, cookouts, reunions, and concerts. Through the late 19th and early 20th century the day was celebrated under a variety of names including “Manumission Day, ” “Emancipation Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Jubilee Day”. In the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance singing legend Gladys Bentley, a Black openly gay woman, performed and recorded a version of the song “Juneteenth Jamboree” which became a swing hit. By the 1950s the day was primarily known as “Juneteenth” and events celebrating Black writers, musicians, artists, and activists, as well as Black life and community proliferated across U.S. cities and towns.
In 1980, Texas was the first state to formally designate June 19th as a holiday, due to the efforts and activism of the Black community. By 1990, only thirteen states had a law that recognized June 19th as a state holiday. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognized Juneteenth in its formal calendar with a proclamation by Deval Patrick, the state’s only Black governor. Even still, it took until July 24, 2020 for the holiday to be signed into law in Massachusetts. Finally, with the passing of the 2021 legislation in the U.S. Congress, June 19th became a national day of observance.
Why did it take so long for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday? Black history, and joyous Black history in particular, has consistently been marginalized and told through a white lens in the retelling and commemorating of American history. Also, recognizing Juneteenth requires a reckoning with the limited intent and impact of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth is not only a Black Independence Day or just a day to celebrate and eat bright red food like Red Velvet cake and Big Red soda. It has been, from its origins, a day to recognize the survival of enslaved ancestors, to celebrate the ongoing fight for freedom, and to find joy in family and community. As New York Times journalist Veronica Chambers wrote in 2020:
“The elemental sermon embedded into the history and lore of Juneteenth has always been one of hope. As someone who has celebrated Juneteenth for a long time, I think we need it now — not in lieu of the freedom, justice, and equality we are still fighting for — but in addition, because we have been fighting for so very long. But there’s a conversation I’ve been having with my friends: Is celebrating this holiday enough to begin to fix all that’s so very broken? And, one tick further, is the national embrace of what has been known as the African-American Independence Day a dangerous idea? Some people wonder — if we sip on our traditional red drinks as we socially distance on screens and porches — will we be lulled into feeling more free than we really are?” Chambers continues, “The gifts of the holiday are the moments of connection, renewal, and joy for a people who have had to endure so much, for so long…To me, Juneteenth matters because it says: Keep going, the future you want is coming.”
Learn more about the history and celebration of Juneteenth:
“Five Myths About Juneteenth” Afi-Odelia Scruggs’ Washington Post article (June 2020)
“History of Juneteenth” presentation by Dr. Shennette Garrett-Scott, Associate Professor, University of Mississippi (2013)
Blkfreedom 2022 digital project honoring Juneteenth launched through a collaboration of six Black museums and historical institutions across the U.S. It explains the history of Juneteenth and its meaning today and includes artistic performances and readings.
Are you looking for a way to honor and celebrate Juneteenth? Check out these local events, as well as the many Juneteenth events in the greater Boston area: