Each year, many Americans gear up to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday sometimes referred to as the Black Independence Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day.
As more attention is placed on civil rights and social justice in the United States, many people are wondering how they can be better allies to Black people and commemorate a fuller, more inclusive, and less white-washed version of American history. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill to officially recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
We talked to college professors to learn about the origins of the holiday and to get suggestions on how to celebrate it.
When Is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth takes place on June 19 every year. In 2022, Juneteenth is celebrated on a Sunday and observed as a federal holiday on Monday.
What Is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a holiday in June commemorating the liberation of Black enslaved people in America. When Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, they announced the freedom of the enslaved population there. This happened more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, as Union forces were not strong enough in Texas to enforce the new law in 1863.
"The significance of Juneteenth is tremendous. While the nation celebrates independence in 1776 during July 4th, there is no national holiday commemorating emancipation,” said Dr. Louis Woods, a Presidential Fellow for Social Justice and Equality and an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University.
While the holiday has been known by many names, every year since the first Juneteenth, many formerly enslaved people and their descendants have celebrated their freedom across the country. A variety of celebrations including events, specific foods, and historical lessons and reenactments have been maintained as traditions to commemorate Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth recognizes one of the United States’ first promises of equality to African Americans following the Civil War,” said Jessica Blake, Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University.
Early Juneteenth celebrations involved prayer meetings, educational forums, and picnics. African Americans also strategized how to advance their campaign for racial equality through activism for better-paying jobs, access to education, and safety from harassment and violence, Blake said.
Why Is Juneteenth Significant?
After intense civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many Americans (Black and non-Black) have given more attention to the Juneteenth holiday and its significance.
“The struggle for racial equality has yet to be fulfilled,” Blake said. “Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the inequalities African Americans continue to face in the United States.”
While slavery has been abolished in the U.S., racism hasn’t. Black Americans are still disproportionately more likely hurt or killed in encounters with police, and African American students are 20 percent more likely to drop out of a college-level credential program, Blake said. There continues to be ongoing inequality in areas such as income and employment, healthcare, criminal justice, and education. For many, Juneteenth is a reminder of how far Black people have come while continuing to move toward racial equality.
“For me, it is important to recognize that Black people are the inheritors of a 20-generation-long struggle for freedom,” Woods said. “We owe an impossible debt to our ancestors for getting us to this point, and we honor them by building a legacy and creating opportunities for generations yet unborn.”
How to Celebrate Juneteenth
Woods says there’s no “correct” way to celebrate Juneteenth, so it’s open to improvisation. Most people spend it with family and friends at a cookout. If you’re looking for ideas, here are some historical and modern ways that Juneteenth can be celebrated in 2022:
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Food is an important part of the Juneteenth celebration, often involving barbecues. Many people gather at a cookout at a local park to celebrate. Gather some friends and neighbors in your backyard and break bread the old-fashioned way.
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Serve Red Drinks
Red is a prominent color in Juneteenth celebrations. It symbolizes the shed blood of enslaved Black people. Serve a pitcher of strawberry punch or soda—the unofficial drink of Juneteenth—or hibiscus tea at your celebration.
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Juneteenth started in Texas, where Black cowboys were among the first to celebrate the holiday, making rodeos a popular Juneteenth event.
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Street Fairs and Block Parties
You may find Juneteenth street fairs in major cities across the United States. Complete with music, marching, step shows and vendors, it’s sure to be a fun time for everyone.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
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The gathering together of family and friends is an important part of the Juneteenth celebration. Slavery tore thousands of families apart, and family reunions symbolize the reunification and strengthening of ancestral bonds. Gather some of your relatives this year in commemoration.
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Ever wonder what Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass were like? On Juneteenth, reenactors will often dress in clothing of notable civil rights activists to educate crowds on the contributions of these historical figures to emancipation and social justice.
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Virtual Juneteenth Events
Many modern Juneteenth celebrations are held as virtual events that all can participate in. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Step Afrika!, and Pharrell's Something in the Water Festival are all holding virtual Juneteenth events.
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Shop at a Black-Owned Business
By shopping at a Black business—national or local—you’re showing support for the advancement of Black people in the American economy. You’re also likely to stumble across some awesome new brands.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
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Donate to a Nonprofit
Several nonprofits that are dedicated to the advancement of racial equality in America, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the HBCU Foundation, the Black Lives Matter organization, and more. Consider donating to one of them this Juneteenth.
Black people more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during a police encounter. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020.
Graduation Rate and Race Study. Inside HigherEd, 2017.