Learn more about the holiday's rich symbolism and how you can observe the occasion this year.

By Colleen McMillar
June 04, 2021
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School's out, but education continues this month with the arrival of Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021, and its many teachable moments. From the Juneteenth flag, with its rich symbolism, to the foods eaten and the activities planned, the holiday celebrates progress while educating about the Black experience in America.

As this country's oldest commemoration of the end of slavery, Juneteenth occupies a special place in the hearts of many African Americans. But the day is celebrated by people of all ethnicities and comes amid an expanding conversation about race in America. Communities all over the United States have planned observances.

In Durham, North Carolina, the site of the largest troop surrender of the Civil War, a celebration is planned with songs, prayers, and presentations on the significance of the day. In New York City, where the 12-day Tribeca Festival was moved from April to June, special curated Juneteenth programming will celebrate "the voices of the African Diaspora." In Atlanta, a Black History Parade will roll down Auburn Avenue, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home and his namesake Center for Nonviolent Social Change are located. In Milwaukee, a Civil War reenactment will honor the only Black unit from Wisconsin that participated in the conflict.

Many, many other activities are planned as the country celebrates progress in the quest to end racial discrimination and recognizes the job isn't finished. Want to mark the day in your own way? Here are some ideas, along with a bit of explanation about how certain traditions started.

Learn the History Behind Juneteenth

Juneteenth celebrates the day Union soldiers arrived in the port city of Galveston, Texas, armed with rifled muskets and General Order No. 3. "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free," said the order read by Gen. Gordon Granger. 

It was June 19, 1865-more than two months after Confederate States Army Commander Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia and two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had legally ended slavery in the Lone Star State. However, up until that point, both the surrender and emancipation had been mere rumors to Texas slaves. Among African Americans, Granger's announcement set off a celebration that's been ongoing for 156 years. "Hallelujah broke out," remembered former slave Felix Haywood in 1936. "Everybody went wild." To learn more about the day the soldiers arrived and the origins of Juneteenth, as June 19th became known, read Haywood's words.

Take time to read books on the Black experience, such as The Black Book ($20, Walmart) a new edition of the classic New York Times bestseller edited by Toni Morrison; The Fire Next Time ($8, Target) by James Baldwin; We Were Eight Years in Power ($11, Target) by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Warmth of Other Suns ($16, Barnes and Noble) by Isabel Wilkerson.

Juneteenth flag on light blue green background
Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim

Fly the Juneteenth Flag

A flag inspired by the June 19 event was created by Ben Haith in 1997 and revised in 2000. Its colors-red, white, and blue-are the same as the U.S. flag, emphasizing that those formerly enslaved and their descendants are Americans. According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, the curved separation in colors symbolizes new horizons and opportunities for Black Americans. In the middle is the white "star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land." In 2007, the June 19 date was added.

wmaster890/Getty Images
wmaster890/Getty Images

Plan a Soul Food Potluck, Spiced Up with Red

Though former slaves didn't have much, communal meals were an important part of early Juneteenth celebrations. Plan a menu filled with the traditional foods eaten on Juneteenth including barbecue, fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and other soul food classics. But make sure you add pops of red, like red velvet cake. In his blog, Afroculinaria, culinary historian and chef Michael W. Twitty explained it this way: "The practice of eating red foods-red cake, barbecue, punch, and fruit-may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century. For both of these cultures, the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation."

Read the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, as the country was about to enter its third year of civil war. In recognition of the crucial role it plays in American history, the 700-word document is often read as part of Juneteenth observances. But, just as its signing didn't mean the end of slavery in Texas, it didn't mean freedom for slaves in some other parts of the country. The proclamation applied only to slaves living in states not under Union control.

In fact, Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, said about it, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

However, the document did allow slaves freed by the Union Army to join the military to fight against the Confederate soldiers. 

"The Emancipation Proclamation is, without a doubt, the most misunderstood document in American history," Lonnie Bunch, a historian and founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture, told National Public Radio during a discussion about the proclamation's 150th anniversary. "On the one hand, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that's so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end."

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