What is Juneteenth, and how do you celebrate it?

Juneteenth Freedom Day illustration
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The next federal holiday on the calendar is also the newest one: Juneteenth.

A combination of the words June and nineteenth, this holiday commemorates the day when the last enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free. This life-changing information arrived two months after the end of the Civil War, and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. So the Black people working on plantations there lived as slaves for 900 more days than those in other parts of the country who had already received the news.

Starting in 1866, former slaves began to celebrate this day (also called Freedom Day) annually as the day that all Black people were emancipated from slavery. In 1872, a Baptist minister and former slave named Rev. Jack Yates led an effort to purchase 10 acres of land in Houston as a place where Black people could gather and celebrate Freedom Day. As Black people migrated to other areas of the country, they brought the tradition with them, passing the celebration down through the generations. And the yearly celebration continues to this day.

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“My neighborhood gets together and we have block parties, parades, and we have a Black history museum that we visit,” Omaha native Candace Foster told Mashable.

Melorra Green of Memphis describes a similar experience. “Juneteenth is like a Black family reunion,” she told Mashable. “I remember in Memphis it was the one time you could see multiple families come together to play, laugh, and, sometimes, cry.”

In 1980, the state of Texas recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday, and nearly every American state followed suit in the decades after. Then, in the weeks leading up to June 19, 2021, President Biden signed a bill into law making it an official federal holiday. It is the newest federal holiday (there are now 11 total) since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. Being a federal holiday means that federal workers get a paid day off, there’s no mail delivery, and most federal offices are closed.

AP

How To Celebrate Juneteenth With Red Foods

The holiday has come to be associated with the color red, especially in terms of foods and drinks. In Texas, they drink Big Red, a sweet cream soda native to that state. Strawberry pies and red velvet cakes are also common. Barbecue has been a central part of the celebration, too.

“Widely considered to be African-Americans’ independence day, Juneteenth is a time to share verdant family memories and indulge in the season’s bounty,” writes Nicole Taylor, a New York Times food columnist and author of “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.” “Over patio tables dotted with half-full cans of strawberry sodas — red drinks are nods to hibiscus and kola nuts, which made their way to the Americas as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — revelers share the ruby-hued foods of the holiday: fiery sausages, watermelon-scented shaved ice, juicy stone fruit cobblers and barbecue.”

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Juneteenth is celebrated in communities big and small throughout the country. Here are four cities where the day is commemorated with great fanfare.

Fort Worth, Texas

The activist Opal Lee, who campaigned to make Juneteenth a national holiday, was a native of Fort Worth. She was 89 in 2016, when she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the day. On June 19, the city of Fort Worth hosts “Opal’s Walk for Freedom — an annual parade with music, floats and decorated vehicles.

Visit Juneteenth Fort Worth for more information.

Washington, D.C.

In D.C., several events take place under the purview of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. On June 17, there’s a “Juneteenth Community Day” with family activities and a performance of “History Alive!: USCT: Juneteenth: What It Means, and Why We Celebrate.”

On June 16, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will open its “One Life: Frederick Douglass” exhibit. And runners can participate in the fourth annual Juneteenth Half Marathon & 10K, which begins and ends at Fort Stanton Park. And there will be an outdoor showing of the film “Miss Juneteenth” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on June 16.

Visit Juneteenth D.C. for more information.

Montgomery, Alabama

In Montgomery, Alabama, which is widely considered the birthplace of the civil rights movement, museums will present special Juneteenth programs starting on June 17. Visitors can participate in a celebration of food, live music and free museum tours during the eighth annual Juneteenth celebration at the Rosa Parks Museum. There will also be a Juneteenth event at The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. At Montgomery’s Riverwalk Amphitheater, people can attend the city’s 2023 Juneteenth Celebration, taking part in live entertainment, educational presentations and art exhibits.

Visit the website for the city of Montgomery for more information.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee’s annual Juneteenth event, which began in 1971, is one of the oldest in the country and attracts about 40,000 participants. Held at the Northcott Neighborhood House, the theme this year is “I Am Juneteenth.” There’s a Freedom Ball (with live music, food and a silent auction) on June 10 and the annual Juneteenth Jubilee Parade and Festival on June 19.

Juneteenth Milwaukee has more information about events.

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About the Author
Jennifer Graham Kizer
Jennifer Graham Kizer has written features and essays for over a dozen magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Health, Parents, Parenting, Redbook and TV Guide. Visit Scripps News to see more of Jennifer's work.

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