Last year, as the country grappled with the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, a light emerged in the nation’s darkness. For the first time, many Americans learned about and celebrated Juneteenth. While the holiday isn’t new, 2020 was undoubtedly a breakthrough year that thrust it into the national spotlight. Even corporate America took notice, with many organizations giving employees a paid day off.
But first, what is Juneteenth? Simply put, it is a holiday that uniquely marked a turning point in the struggle to liberate people from the bondage of slavery. It was the day Major General Gordon Granger informed plantation owners in Galveston, Texas, that Abraham Lincoln had declared the last of the enslaved people free under the terms of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Two full years passed until the last enslaved people in Texas received the news of their freedom. That day was June 19, 1865, and Juneteenth as we know it was born. For the century and a half since, Black Americans have celebrated the official ending to slavery.
Below are five interesting facts that will shed more light on Juneteenth and why it’s being embraced and increasingly celebrated by people around the country.
It might become a national holiday
Amidst a rise in awareness of the historic holiday, Congress voted to pass a bill to acknowledge Juneteenth as a federal holiday. “For far too long, the story of our country’s history has been incomplete as we have failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery,” Sen. Edward Markey said in a statement. “Today’s Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom.” It must now be signed by President Biden to become a federal law.
Red is symbolic in the foods served
From barbecue to red velvet cake to strawberry soda, crimson-colored foods and drinks are often served during Juneteenth celebrations. The traditional red fare is emblematic and symbolic of the bloodshed and perseverance of enslaved people and their descendants. “We have two ancestral red drinks that come across the Atlantic during the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa, and you’ve probably had both of them,” Adrian Miller, a soul food scholar said in a 2018 interview with WBUR. “One is cola — cola nuts are either white or reddish, and also hibiscus, which is a flower native to West Africa. So, people would often make drinks using the nuts or the flower petals to color the drink or sweeten it to taste. And that’s the same basic formula of Kool-Aid.” The scarlet-tinted foods and drinks can be found on menus and backyards across the country to commemorate Emancipation Day.
It has its own flag
While states and cities have their respective flags, so does Juneteenth. Originally created in 1997 by Ben Haith, the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation—the flag celebrates America while honoring African American’s rich history. Emblazoned with a white star reminiscent of the Texas star, it’s complemented by red and blue stripes with an eye-catching burst surrounding the star at the center. According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, the star symbolizes “bursting with new freedom throughout the land.”
It was revived during the Civil Rights Movement
While Juneteenth may have just arrived on the radar of many Millennials and Gen Z citizens, the 150-plus-year-old holiday was revived once before during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. According to the American Battlefield Trust, The Poor People’s March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. and led by Ralph Abernathy, was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the special date. Many march participants embraced the holiday and took the traditions and celebrations back to their respective cities around the country marking a rebirth of the holiday.
It has different names
When it comes to commemorating the end of slavery, Juneteenth isn’t the only name that represents the holiday. The momentous occasion also goes by Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Emancipation Day. Call it whatever you want, celebrating the day that the last enslaved African Americans were finally informed about their freedom is a day that is synonymous with unmistakable exuberance and overwhelming joy.
While Juneteenth is primarily celebrated by African Americans, it is a holiday for all people. America is built on resilience, unity and perseverance. Its dark past is something that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. The day when freedom was granted to all is a day that every American can honor and celebrate.
Image: “And the Darkness Has Not Overcome Us,” courtesy of Shin Maeng