Two years, five months and eighteen days. This is how long it took for more than 250,000 enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas to learn about their freedom. The date was June 19, 1865—which would later become known as Juneteenth. Two and a half years prior, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared, “All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas didn’t receive this information until much later.
There are several centuries-old rumors and folklore floating around about why the message was delayed, including one which claims the messenger was traveling by mule and it took over two years for him to reach Galveston. Another tale suggests that the messenger was murdered en route. And another posits that the enslaved were deliberately kept from this news in order for the owners to reap another harvest. We may never know what’s truth and what’s fiction, but what we do know for sure is that on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston and delivered the news of freedom.
A year later, in 1866, the first Juneteenth celebrations took place, making this 156-year-old holiday the oldest celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Celebrations included fellowship with family and friends, church services and of course—good food! You will find red-colored foods and drinks such as red velvet cake and strawberry soda. The red color symbolizes the blood shed from ancestors. Foods such as collard greens symbolize prosperity, and no Juneteenth celebration is complete without barbecue. Over the years, other traditions such as rodeos, festivals and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation ensued. Then, in the 1870s, a group of freedmen rallied together and collected $1000 to purchase ten acres of land, known today as Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, to host the annual Juneteenth celebrations.
While the nation has historically celebrated the Fourth of July as America’s “Independence Day,” Juneteenth is equally important and deserves just as much recognition, as it’s the day that everyone was legally free. As of 6/17/2021, Juneteenth is officially a federal holiday, and the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Looking for ways on how to get involved for Juneteenth? Here are a few ideas:
• Celebrate in your city. A quick Google search will bring up any festivities happening in your city for Juneteenth. We also have a list of happenings around the nation for you to check out! If you want to avoid the crowds, you can keep it small and simple at home, with an intimate group of family and friends and simply celebrate togetherness.
• Amplify Black stories and support Black-owned businesses. This isn’t an act that is reserved solely for Juneteenth—it’s something that can be done every single day. It can be as simple as sharing a post on your social media platforms, passing along a useful Black-owned resource, or making a conscious effort to shop Black-owned.
• Educate yourself. To understand where we are as a nation today, it helps to understand the history of where we’ve come from. You can learn more about Juneteenth through books, TV shows, and movies. Here’s a list of resources:
• Juneteenth – by Ralph Ellison
• We were Eight Years in Power – by Ta-nehisi Coates
• Envisioning Emancipation – by Deborah Willis
• Closer to Freedom – by Stephanie M.H. Camp
• The Fire Next Time – by James Baldwin
• Remembering Slavery – by various editors
• Black-ish – Season 4, Episode 1
• Atlanta – Season 1, Episode 9
• Juneteenth Jamboree
• Miss Juneteenth
• Just Mercy
While celebrating and honoring the past and its significance, it is important to also continue to champion the freedom, liberty, and equality of today.
This blog post was commissioned in partnership with the Black Travel Alliance.