What Juneteenth Means to 5 Black Activists, Organizers, and Writers

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Andie Kanaras and Ella Cerón contributed reporting.

Earlier this week, the United States Senate unanimously passed a bill that establishes Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The vote came after years of work by organizers like Opal Lee, and prompted the bill’s passage in the House of Representatives as well as its ultimate signing by President Joe Biden. But LySaundra J. Campbell, a writer and editor for the National Women’s Law Center, worries that calling Juneteenth a holiday without proper context “opens it up to whitewashing and exploitation. Unfortunately, in light of last summer and references in pop culture, I’m afraid that’s where it’s headed.”

Campbell, who as a child, attended the annual Juneteenth celebration in her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, calls Juneteenth “equal frustration and celebration.” The date,  also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, the day a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, got the much-delayed news of their emancipation from chattel slavery — over two years after the passing of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed slavery in non-Union territories.

“I want to celebrate my culture and also recognize we have a long way to go until Black people are truly free in this country,” Campbell said. “1865 wasn’t that long ago and since, we’ve had to succumb to other forms of enslavement and violence.” The United States did not formally abolish slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865 — and even that has an “indentured serviture” allowance that fuels the carceral system in the U.S., which disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

Yet awareness of Juneteenth is becoming more widespread, and often with minimal context: Following an overdue national conversation about anti-Black racism and racial justice, major companies including Nike, Adobe, and Twitter announced in 2020 that they’d make the date a paid holiday for all employees moving forward. The same year, state governors such as Washington’s Jay Inslee and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy enacted state laws to declare Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees; as Time notes, Texas was the first state to mark Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, thanks in large part to the work of then-State Representative Al Edwards.

Apartment Therapy talked to Black activists and educators about what Juneteenth means to them, how they plan to observe the day, as well as the need to continue fighting anti-Black racism and systemic inequity. 

Learn What Juneteenth Commemorates

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as an effort to weaken Confederate troops, NPR notes. Even so, it was not uncommon for enslavers to lie to enslaved people and continue to abuse them for extractive labor as long as they could. Such was the case in Galveston, Texas, until June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger declared Order No. 3, stating that all enslaved people were free. As the Galveston Historical Foundation notes, Granger and his men traveled through Galveston, including to the local Black church, to read the order to Black people directly (though as historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. noted, other white enslavers across Texas still lied to and exploited many of the state’s 250,000 enslaved people until after the fall harvest).

Juneteenth is inextricably linked to the South, in particular Texas, and so are its events. “The first Juneteenth celebration took place in 1866 in Texas with community gatherings, including sporting events, cookouts, prayers, dances, parades, and the singing of spirituals like ‘Many Thousands Gone’ and ‘Go Down Moses,’” Fabiola Cineas reported for Vox in 2020. Over 150 years later, many modern celebrations honor the same traditions. 

“There’s a solemn aspect to Juneteenth. It wasn’t only about being free,” Celeste Faison, the Director of Campaigns at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told Apartment Therapy. “When you think about the fact that we are celebrating the last people to know that slavery ended, which is the basis of Juneteenth, it means that they endured slavery longer than anyone else. That’s something to be honored. A resiliency practice that we perfected during slavery is our ability to find joy, hope, and to celebrate Black life in the midst of the most dire circumstances — that’s what Juneteenth represents to me.”

The commemoration of Juneteenth typically functions as a period of rest, rejuvenation, rejoicing, and reflection amongst Black communities. “This Juneteenth, I’ll be celebrating Black Joy,” Arisha Hatch, the Vice President and Chief of Campaigns at Color Of Change, told Apartment Therapy. “After a year marked by tragedy and injustice, joy and resilience often gets lost. But at Color Of Change, we make a point to uplift joy and self-care as part of our organizing.”

Honor How Different Black Communities Mark Juneteenth

Many families take the day to celebrate and honor Black resilience and joy, and many Black communities organize educational programming, concerts, and more on June 19 (especially given that traditional American school curriculums rarely teach students about Juneteenth). 

“Some people pour libations to honor the ancestors. Some people attend parades and enjoy fireworks,” Feminista Jones, an author and activist, told Apartment Therapy, pointing to the tradition of eating red foods, which typically serve as a symbol of resilience, the New York Times notes. This year, Jones plans to observe Juneteenth as she travels abroad. “I’ll be celebrating by taking time to meditate and reflect on the bravery and courage of our ancestors,” she said. 

This year, Dr. Thomishia Booker, a licensed therapist and the CEO of Hey Carter! Books, plans to attend the African American Community Service Agency’s Juneteenth Celebration in San Jose, California, as a vendor. “I will be talking about the mission of Hey Carter! Books and why #BrownBoyJoy is even more important now than before,” she said, calling to her book of the same name and explaining as “displaying joy unapologetically as an act of resistance.” She also plans to do some fun, educational activities with her family and read “Juneteenth for Mazie” by Floyd Cooper to her children. “As we celebrate Juneteenth, we are reminded that not a lot has changed but our joy will forever remain,” Dr. Booker said.

While Juneteenth originated in Texas, it’s also honored around the U.S. and the world by the Black diaspora. “It’s also a holiday that connects us back to our roots in Africa and reminds us that our history does not begin with slavery,” Faison said. “In places like Africatown in Alabama, where they were able to establish a free town, Juneteenth represents a reclamation of independence and self-determination.”

Continue to Educate Yourself About American History Honestly and in Its Entirety 

Juneteenth “serves as a learning opportunity for all,” Dr. Booker said. “Everyone should ensure they know the history of Juneteenth and why this day is important for the Black community and share it with as many people as possible.”

The date is also a reminder of the systemic injustices that disproportionately affect Black Americans. “Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, should have you questioning the clause in the 13th Amendment that still keeps people enslaved, disproportionately and strategically Black people,” Campbell told Apartment Therapy. “The day should have you questioning why descendents of enslaved people have yet to receive any kind of reparations — or if they received any (i.e. land), question why and how it was (and still is) taken away. It should have you questioning redlining, gentrification, Black codes, unfair housing appraisals, or grieving the devastating impact this pandemic has had on Black people.”

As Faison noted, the fight for equity is far from over. “Slavery is directly connected to the current day conditions that domestic workers endure,” she noted, pointing to the ways in which Black women make up a large percentage of American domestic workers, and how that work has historically been grueling, undervalued, and underpaid. “And that’s important when thinking about Juneteenth,” Faison said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, the last folks are free and now the conditions have changed.’ We have so far to go, from the domestic worker movement to a policing system predicated on slave patrols.”

Question Who Gets the Day Off… and Why

To some Black organizers, the federal and corporate implementation of Juneteenth as a paid holiday for people of all races and ethnicities feels like a convenient but insubstantial fix in place of real calls for change. “Such actions run moot in the larger fight for racial justice nationwide,” Hatch said. “A day off does nothing to uproot centuries’ worth of systemic racism. Fair wages, benefits, and shifts in power structures at corporations do.”

According to a 2014 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 38 percent of Black Americans do not have access to paid sick days, let alone paid time off. This, compounded by the fact that Black workers in America are typically paid less than their white counterparts and are not given the same opportunities to build savings or generational wealth, means that many Black people might not be able to afford to take Juneteenth as a day off if their employer does pay them accordingly. To combat this, Faison touted the NDWA’s Alia app, which asks employers to contribute to domestic workers’ paid time off and insurance funds. “If every client gave five dollars, a domestic worker could have a couple of days off per month,” she said.  

Several of the organizers Apartment Therapy spoke with stressed how vital it is to make space for Black people to rest. “Support Black people by giving them a paid day off to rest to rejuvenate and be with family,” Faison said. “Every day we have to navigate remnants of slavery and contend with racism. We navigate microaggressions at work, hold our breath when we see cop cars, fight to remain in our communities that are declared trendy. We need a break.” 

Campbell agreed. “I hope Black folks are able to rest this Juneteenth — play spades, laugh, flaunt your braids, hug a family member or friend — and that everyone else uses this day to learn about the impact of all that has come after Juneteenth to keep us from experiencing true freedom, and do something that will help us all be a little more free,” she said.

Recommit Yourself to Fighting Anti-Black Racism as a Continued Effort

As the conversation surrounding Juneteenth grows, it’s important to root its observance in a prolonged effort to eradicate anti-Black racism. “I urge people not to turn Juneteenth into MLK Day or Black History Month — this doesn’t need to be a day of service or one of the few days each year where people who aren’t Black pretend to care about Black liberation and freedom,” Campbell said. 

“As we celebrate Blackness and Black freedom this Juneteenth, we must also recognize there’s still work to be done to achieve a world that empowers and values Black lives,” Hatch said. She encouraged people to put pressure on corporations to implement actionable steps that benefit Black people in the long run, and in particular highlighted Color of Change’s  #BeyondTheStatement campaign, which continues to hold companies accountable for their promises of solidarity with Black communities. 

“Over the past year, we’ve seen countless companies make public commitments to advance racial justice, yet these same companies continue to uphold practices that undermine their promises,” she said. “As these companies boast about honoring Juneteenth, they must accept that measurable action is the only acceptable path forward.”