Each year, many Americans gear up to celebrate Juneteenth—the holiday sometimes referred to as "the Black Independence Day."
As more attention has been placed on civil rights and social justice in the United States, 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 make Juneteenth 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?
In 2021, Juneteenth is celebrated on Saturday, June 19.
What Is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the liberation of Black enslaved people in America. When Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, they announced the freedom of the enslaved population there. This happened more than two years following President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
"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, Presidential Fellow for Social Justice and Equality and Associate Professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.
Juneteenth has been known by many names: Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day, but, every year since the first Juneteenth, former enslaved people and their descendants would celebrate their freedom across the country.
“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, even safety from harassment and violence, Blake said.
What States Recognize Juneteenth as a Holiday?
All states recognize Juneteenth as a commemorative holiday, except for South Dakota. Here are the states that recognize it as a paid holiday:
What Companies Recognize Juneteenth as a Holiday?
The list of companies that recognize Juneteenth as a holiday is growing, including several high-profile organizations (and Dotdash, The Spruce's parent company). Nike said they’d close their stores in 2020 and annually thereafter to honor the day. They’re among a growing list of companies that recognize Juneteenth as a holiday:
- JP Morgan
- General Motors
- The NFL
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.
For many, Juneteenth is a reminder of how far Black people have come while continuing to move towards 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. But if you’re looking for ideas, here are some ways you can celebrate Juneteenth in 2021:
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Food is an important part of the Juneteenth celebration. 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—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 common 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 family members apart, so family reunions symbolize reunification and strengthening of bonds. Gather some of your relatives this year in remembrance.
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Ever wonder what Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass were like? On Juneteenth, reenactors will often dress up like civil rights activists to educate crowds on their characters’ contributions to emancipation and social justice.
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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
There are several nonprofits that are dedicated to the advancement of racial equality in America, such as the Black Lives Matter organization, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others. 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.