Learn, honor and give back this holiday
By Carlett Spike of AARP
Food is often part of Juneteenth celebrations. Here, a man prepares a barbecue grill at a Juneteenth festival in Boston in 2021.
BASTIAAN SLABBERS/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. President Joe Biden signed legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, but do you know the true meaning behind it?
This historical event dates back to June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned they were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of Jan. 1, 1863, and all slaves in rebellious Southern states were free, it took more than two years for the news to spread to Texas and for officials there to announce slavery had been abolished. The holiday commemorating that day is known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day and/or Emancipation Day as it marks the day all Black people in the South were finally free. Slavery was outlawed nationwide with the ratification of the 13th Amendment six months later.
“For African Americans in the United States, [Juneteenth] truly is that independence day because prior to that, even though slaves had been freed in many of the other Confederate states, Texas remained a state where they continued to enslave folks,” says Greg Francis, 55, an attorney who focuses on civil rights. It’s important to understand the history and its impact because there’s a direct link to problems with systemic racism today, he says.
Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, in 1980. Others followed suit throughout the years, before the federal legislation making it a national holiday was signed into law in 2021 after passing unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by a vote of 415-14 in the House. Thanks to this, more Americans know about the holiday.
Approximately 6 in 10 Americans say they know “a lot” or “some” about Juneteenth, according to a 2022 Gallup poll, compared with 4 in 10 in 2021.
Whether you’ve known about Juneteenth your entire life or you’re just learning about this important day, it’s one everyone can commemorate. Here are eight ways to do so.
1. Learn the full history
Although June 19, 1865, marks Juneteenth, the end of slavery was not so clear-cut. That’s why it’s valuable to start by educating yourself and others about the full history of Juneteenth and the events leading up to it. The many resources available include the book Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison and the film Miss Juneteenth, this list of books to read with grandchildren about the holiday, and this video tour through the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Frederick Goodall, 53, from Houston says he has celebrated Juneteenth his entire life. It’s also his mother’s birthday, making the holiday doubly important in his family. He celebrates by attending parades and hosting a barbecue, like many others traditionally do. “It’s a celebration of freedom. It’s a celebration of what we’ve overcome,” Goodall says. “Just indulge yourself in the joy of that.”
Red is the color associated with the holiday, as it symbolizes sacrifice and transition. Celebrations typically include red foods such as red velvet cake, red beverages, watermelon and barbecued meats. Popular sides including corn bread, collard greens and cabbage represent prosperity, good fortune and wealth in Black history.
There’s no wrong way to celebrate. Randi Bryant from San Francisco turned 50 in December 2020 but postponed celebrating for six months due to COVID-19. In June 2021, she celebrated her birthday and Juneteenth with a girls’ trip to Mexico with about 40 friends. The group reflected on the day and released lanterns in honor of their ancestors. She says they discussed this journey to freedom and how to continue moving the journey forward.
3. Support Black-owned businesses
According to a 2021 poll conducted by Branded Research, people planned to mark Juneteenth by supporting Black-owned businesses.Any product or service you need can be found and purchased through a Black-owned business. Here are a few options on where to buy home goods, apparel, skin care products, hats and wines recommended by Sisters from AARP, the newsletter celebrating Black women.
4. Read works by Black authors
Reading the works of Black authors is another way to learn and engage with Black history. Whether picking out fiction or nonfiction reads, books penned by Black authors should inspire readers to reflect on the history of African Americans in the United States. Classics by Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, for example, are foundational reads that explore Black experiences. Or pick up a newer read that tackles social issues, from justice to climate change. Here are a few recommendations:
- You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi
- On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
- The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
- Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
- My Sunday Best: Pearls of Wisdom, Wit, Grace, and Style by La Verne Ford Wimberly
5. Acknowledge and spread the word
Educating yourself about Juneteenth is just the first step; it’s also important to spread the word and educate others. Six in 10 Americans knowing “a lot” or “some” about Juneteenth, means there’s still work to do. Karen Arrington, 64, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who is an ambassador, CEO and philanthropist, says she’s intentional about having open conversations about Black history.She says she has “long, sometimes uncomfortable conversations where [people] say, ‘Well, we support you,’ but what does that mean? Telling me you support me is one thing, but you’ve got to take action, because otherwise you become complicit,” Arrington says.
Bryant says everyone should start with their own sphere of influence by advocating for recognition of Juneteenth — for example, if your workplace or school does not have the holiday off, question why. “There’s no reason that Fourth of July should receive greater prominence than Juneteenth,” Bryant says.
6. Donate to supportive organizations
One way to celebrate Juneteenth is by donating to organizations that support Black communities. Find organizations that resonate with your beliefs or support causes you are passionate about. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Audre Lorde Project, the Bail Project and the Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund are a few to consider.
7. Amplify Black voices
In July 2021, Nicole Fraise quit her job as an architect to travel the world. As she made her way through various countries, she decided to document her journey by blogging and creating content through her lens as a Black woman and solo traveler. Forty countries later, she’s surprised at how difficult it’s been to get brands to work with her. It’s a common story she hears from other content creators of color. “There are plenty of things that people aren’t offering from an African American perspective. That alone is an issue,” she says.
Fraise’s story is a reminder of the need to amplify Black voices. Many Black creators have spoken out about the unfair treatment they have experienced since the explosion of TikTok and higher demands for user-generated content.
Black representation matters. Use Juneteenth as an opportunity to reflect on the ways you support Black voices and what more you can do. It goes beyond sharing Black stories. Use your sphere of influence to advocate for fair pay, a seat at the table, opening doors and more.
8. Attend Juneteenth events
Amelia Ross-Hammond has organized past Juneteenth celebrations.
COURTESY AMELIA ROSS-HAMMOND
Amelia Ross-Hammond, 73, founder and chairman of the Virginia African American Cultural Center has organized Juneteenth celebrations for the Virginia Beach community for the past few years. Events this year include an artist showcase, a festival at the beach and more. There are tons of events across the country from New York’s annual Juneteenth festival in Brooklyn to aWellness Dayat the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. If your city is not hosting an event or you’d rather stay home, Ross-Hammond suggests participating in virtual celebrations.
The hope is to pass down the history and truly learn from the past, Ross-Hammond says. “This is our story, and it can’t be kept in a box. This is the time to reflect,” she says. “Time to open up and have an honest discussion, and a time to think critically of what we can do so that we don’t have to revisit this.”