Juneteenth: Why It Matters and How to Celebrate It


Editor’s note: Since we first published this article on The SunDaze Journey blog in 2020, Juneteenth became a federal holiday in the United States. Two years after this milestone achievement, we wanted to circle back and revisit the conversation around Juneteenth.

Amidst the centuries-overdue reckoning with systemic racial injustice that caught fire in 2020, Juneteenth finally entered the national consciousness more than 150 years after it was first celebrated. The origins of Juneteenth date back to 1865, when members of the Union army marched into Galveston, Texas. With their arrival, came news of the Confederate South’s defeat and the freedom of 250,000 enslaved Black Americans in this region. 

As this information circulated through the community, those who were now liberated from the brutal, inhumane treatment of plantation owners reacted with pure jubilation in the Galveston streets. Historical records show, this was the earliest commemoration to mark the end of chattel slavery in the United States. But it came 2 ½ years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. 

Juneteenth Celebrates Black Flourishing

Many oral narratives seek to understand this unconscionable, lamentable gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the events of June 19, 1865. Some accounts indicate that Texan slaveholders knew about the Executive Order but deliberately buried this information from the general populace. Other accounts maintain that federal officers chose not to deliver the news until one final cotton harvest had been reaped in Texas. 

But whatever the cause, it remains a fact that Juneteenth’s first observers were still in bondage almost 3 years after the nationwide abolition of slavery. This makes the resilience that surrounds Juneteenth all the more extraordinary. Even as these miscarriages of justice continued to rain down, Black Americans harnessed their celebrations, festivities, and unapologetic joy into a communal act of rebellion, a flourishing of existence.  

Until recently, the vibrant traditions and historical significance of Juneteenth were overlooked by mainstream U.S. culture. And what a shame because, for millions of people, Juneteenth is more of an Independence Day than the Fourth of July has ever been. In fact, those in the Black community often refer to this celebration as Freedom Day.

ICYMI: Juneteenth Is a U.S. Federal Holiday

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a proclamation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The measure, which passed with a rare show of bipartisan legislative support, marked the first time in American history that Juneteenth was recognized on a national platform. But let’s be clear about something here. The credit for this milestone does not belong to a white male president or a handful of politicians in Congress. 

The driving force who made it all possible is a Black woman named Opal Lee. This 96-year-old activist and Texas native is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her tireless campaigns to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Her life’s work has since paid off. In fact, Lee was standing next to President Biden when the proclamation ceremony took place. But that is just a mere fraction of the whole story.

For decades, Lee marched for 2 ½ miles each year on Juneteenth (symbolic of the 2 ½ years that enslaved people in Galveston were forced to wait for emancipation). These marches raised continual awareness for an event that some Americans knew almost nothing about. 

In 2016, Lee escalated her efforts and began a cross-country walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to the Capitol in Washington D.C. She arrived in September of that year with a petition signed by 1.5 million supporters, advocating for lawmakers to enact Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Her initial request wasn’t honored, but Lee would not take “no” for an answer. She simply continued on with the crusade until she achieved success. 

5 Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth

Resilient, passionate, tenacious activists like Opal Lee are the reason this country has made any ounce of progress over the centuries. Her labor of love makes Juneteenth’s legacy of endurance even more impactful. So with this annual tribute to freedom right around the corner, here are some ideas on how to center the voices, stories, and experiences of this nation’s Black community—both on Juneteenth and all year long.    

Order Takeout from a Local Black Owned Restaurant.

As the World Economic Forum reports, interest in Black-owned businesses increased significantly after COVID-19. But only 4% will survive the first 3 ½ years of operation. Consumers, like you, can wield buying power to help Black entrepreneurs succeed. So if you plan to order takeout on Juneteenth, choose a Black-owned restaurant. To locate these options in your area, download the EatOkra mobile app.    

Prepare a Traditional Barbecue Meal for Your Crew. 

The connection of Juneteenth with Soul Food barbecue runs deep. According to chef and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, red foods (barbecue sauce, sweet potatoes, baked beans, watermelon, strawberry soda, red velvet cake) are Juneteenth staples. “For our ancestors in West and Central Africa, red was one of the most important colors. It’s the color of creativity, the color of fire, the color of war, the color of resistance,” Chef Twitty explains.


Educate Yourself More on the History of Juneteenth. 

If you want to learn more in-depth about the roots and evolution of Juneteenth, there are tons of resources to further your education. Check out this list of Juneteenth books (for all ages!) from literary scholar and activist Antoinette Scully. Listen to this NPR podcast interview on the context around Juneteenth with Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed. Or watch a documentary (like “Hope of Juneteenth”) on YouTube.      

Donate to Black Organizations and Advocacy Groups. 

From global movements to local initiatives, thousands of organizations combat oppressive systems to reimagine an equitable future for Black Americans and others across the African diaspora. From carving out more education pathways to creating representation in the arts, racial justice work matters. So consider a Juneteenth donation (here are some of our favorite organizations) to help fund this critical mission.

Volunteer Your Time to Pursue Racial Justice and Equity. 

If you cannot afford to make a monetary donation on Juneteenth, contribute another valuable resource—your time. Activism coalitions such as Grassroots Law Project need volunteers to send emails, phone calls, or text messages to U.S. policy makers who can enact legislative reform. To participate in these virtual shifts, you just need access to a computer or mobile device and a reliable internet connection. 

Over to You: What Are Your Reflections on Juneteenth?

How will you commemorate Juneteenth in 2023? As the United States continues to reckon with its historical atrocities of slavery and current injustices of systemic racism, do you believe this federal holiday is a meaningful step toward both “reconciliation and healing,” as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation envisions? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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