How to Honor Juneteenth, According to Black Activists
The newest federal holiday is Sunday, Juneteenth. This day was chosen in memory of June 19, 1865 when Galveston’s enslaved citizens discovered they had been freed from slavery after the Civil War. Many will get a long weekend that includes Monday, June 20—but, especially given the holiday’s history, figuring out appropriate ways to mark that day is still a work in progress.
Businesses are now learning to avoid Juneteenth. Walmart apologized for selling pints of Juneteenth-themed red velvet ice cream—which some said was similar to one sold by a Cincinnati-based Black-owned business Creamalicious. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis apologized for selling a Juneteenth-themed watermelon salad in its cafeteria. Black Twitter users criticized Dollar Tree’s promotion of the Juneteenth watermelon salad. Juneteenth-themed paper plates and napkins.
“You know that song ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over?’ It’s like Juneteenth is bustin’ out all over,” says Rev. John Mosley has organized Juneteenth events in New Orleans ever since the late 1990s.
TIME talked to Black activists who have organized Juneteenth celebrations for decades—including campaigners who advocated for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, a goal they achieved in 2021. They all agreed that it will take some time for most Americans to learn the best ways to honor Juneteenth—and that some commercialization is to be expected. And they said that while summer gatherings with friends and family are totally appropriate for Juneteenth, those celebrations should ideally support the Black community in some way, and include an educational component—whether reflecting on the origins of the holiday and its legacy or participating in ongoing work to achieve full racial equality.
“I’m hoping that I don’t look up one day and see Juneteenth sales like you see Fourth of July sales, but of course at some point in the future it could happen,” says Deborah Evans, a spokesperson for the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which promotes educational programming about Juneteenth and advocated for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. “We’ve been the stepchild of holidays for years. The majority of the victims were from the Black community. Therefore, we need to be more educated about what Juneteenth is. Right now, it is just a picnic day to a lot of people.”
Cliff Robinson, who runs the website Juneteenth.com which lists Juneteenth celebrations nationwide, says that people should think of Juneteenth as another Memorial Day—which commemorates Americans who died serving their country or Veterans Day—which celebrates those who served. Reacting to Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream debacle he says, “We don’t have a Veterans Day ice cream, we don’t have a Memorial Day ice cream.” He suggests companies make a special effort to partner with Black entrepreneurs and companies for the holiday because Juneteenth “is all about healing and righting the wrongs that resulted from slavery.”
Robinson states that many Juneteenth celebrations involve attending church. He encourages everyone to attend a church where the minister can talk about Juneteenth. In the Black community, churches have been an oasis of safety and refuge for many years. Juneteenth services might include a performance by a gospel choir. This year, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation asks houses of worship for General Order No. 3. This 1865 document was used to notify enslaved Texans that they were free.
Steve Williams, President of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation who advocated on Capitol Hill for Juneteenth to be made a national holiday, said proper Juneteenth gatherings should include readings of the “freedom documents”: the Emancipation Proclamation; the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; and General Order No. 3.
The celebration of Juneteenth is a relatively recent event, even for Black community members. Ronald V. Myers established the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation 25 years ago. He got Juneteenth onto the calendars of 43 states as well as the District of Columbia. Although the date has been celebrated in many ways since 1865 it gained more popularity after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It grew in prominence in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd helped spark racial-justice protests across the country, and particularly after former President Trump’s attempt to host a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a place where, 100 years earlier, a mob of white residents had burned down a neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, killing as many as 300 of their fellow Black Tulsans.
Opal Lee, a ninety-five year-old activist for Juneteenth, was able to witness President Joe Biden signing the bill making Juneteenth national holiday. She hopes that Juneteenth will be a day dedicated to service. Opal Lee, a ninety-five year old Juneteenth activist, says that her hope is for everyone to perform one good deed for somebody.
“I don’t mean we just come together and celebrate. We’ve got to look after each other,” says Lee. “I don’t mean you’ve got to do something stupendous: Smile at somebody or watch the children while their mother goes to the store, or help an old lady like myself across the street.”
However, Juneteenth activists believe that this holiday will motivate people to speak out about the need to eradicate racial inequality year round.
“Juneteenth ain’t a Black thing, not a Texas thing. It’s about freedom for everybody,” says Lee. “As long as we have joblessness, homelessness, and health care that some can get and others can’t, and climate change—all these things need to be addressed for us to be free.”
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