Every year on June 19, Black Americans across the country celebrate what is known as Juneteenth. The holiday, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the official end of slavery for enslaved people in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Traditions of the holiday spread across communities through familial connections, the Great Migration, and word-of-mouth, ultimately adding to the holiday's traditions.
In Texas, Juneteenth was officially designated as a legal state holiday in 1980 and continues to keep original, sacred traditions alive. Freedom Day regained national interest over the last year as social justice movements pushing for racial equality continue to press forward, despite ongoing racial violence. Last year, Congress passed a bill formally recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
While Juneteenth celebrations can look different wherever you go, here’s a look at how Texans honor the day and the ancestors who first memorialized their newfound freedom.
On the Menu: Red Drinks and Food
Sipping red drinks is a symbolic honoring of the blood shed by enslaved African Americans who endured centuries of bondage. The tradition, for some, also includes eating red foods, like watermelon, and red velvet cake which also symbolizes perseverance, struggle, and resilience of those who came before us.
Outdoor Juneteenth celebrations often include plenty of barbecue –– a staple for many Texans. Beyond the fall-off-the-bone goodness, grilling or smoking meat outdoors brings together families, friends, and the community.
“There’s something about black folks and parks for celebrations,” Houston-born author and TV writer Attica Locke told The New York Times last year. “Being outdoors together and in parks is a big part of Black culture.”
After enslaved people learned of their freedom, many asserted their freedom by casting away the clothes forced on them by slave owners. Early celebrations of Juneteenth included “former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters,’” according to Juneteenth.com.
Wearing red, white, and blue is also a custom, and a nod to the Juneteenth flag which bears the “new star.”
Others might choose to wear the red, black, and green of the Pan-African flag, and some sport all-white, a documented special occasion color of clothing for Black people.
Parades, Pageants, and Prayer Services
Juneteenth celebrations often included parades, pageants, and prayer services, all in honor of community and ancestors. Other Texan traditions include baseball games, rodeos, and fishing. The first national Miss Juneteenth pageant was held last year in Memphis after decades of locally-run pageants marking the holiday.
Cultural groups and community organizations often line the streets for parades to celebrate Freedom Day. This year, Galveston and Houston will host several parades, festivals, and events to mark Juneteenth, keeping generations of traditions alive. Black-owned marketplaces, performances, art installments, and more are all being organized to commemorate Juneteenth. For more information on those events, click here.
As early celebrations of Freedom Day centered around reflection, elders were often called upon to share knowledge of the past. Prayer services are sometimes held on Juneteenth to honor this tradition of reflection and sharing memories of the past.
In 2020, cities around the country organized marches to protest police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's murder and Rayshard Brooks' killing.
However you choose to celebrate, learning about the significance of our gatherings and celebrations helps keep the memory of the meaning behind the holiday alive.