In 2020, spurred by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation marking “Juneteenth”—a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth”—a state holiday. Corporations ranging from Google to General Motors declared that it would be a paid day off for employees. A popular movement is now growing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey has sponsored legislation that would do just that.
Juneteenth is a “living, breathing meditation on the meaning of freedom,” says Kelly E. Navies, Oral Historian for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “What did it mean for four million African Americans to suddenly be declared free with little to no resources, no land, no guarantee of citizenship rights? What does it mean today?”
Americans are “still grappling” with the legacy of slavery, Navies says, which is evident in the deep racial inequities that exist in civic life, education, health and well-being, and economic prosperity. Recognition of these inequities is why HopeWell explicitly identifies racism as a key driver of racial disparities in outcomes among foster youth.
As part of HopeWell’s work to break down unjust barriers due to racism, ableism, homophobia, gender-based discrimination, and other prejudices, HopeWell elevates the voices and concerns of minoritized populations in the child welfare and development disabilities systems, including LGBTQIA+ people and Asian American and Pacific Islanders. HopeWell also recognizes Juneteenth as a holiday and offers it as a paid day off for staff.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union troops, the majority of whom were members of the Army Corps’ U.S. Colored Troops, arrived in Galveston, Texas to bring news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which marked the end of slavery. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect nearly two and a half years earlier on New Year’s Day in 1863, it could not be enforced in Confederate states and many slaveowners simply ignored it. Emancipation from slavery took place over a protracted period of time throughout the country. The approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas who learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army at Appomattox, were the last to be freed.
One year after Union General Gordon Granger read General Order Number 3 to the people of Texas informing them that the connection between slaveowners and slaves was now that of “employer and hired laborer,” the first Juneteenth celebration was held in Galveston. An entire hog was barbecued and consumed along with pink lemonade and watermelon because at that time red foods were considered “vibrant delicacies,” according to culinary historian Michael Twitty. The color red also symbolized the blood shed for freedom, and over the past 150 years, red beans and rice, red velvet cake, potato salad, punch, hibiscus tea, and strawberries have become featured menu items for Juneteenth celebrations.
A hallmark of the first Juneteenth celebrations in Texas was the reunification of family members who had been separated through slavery. After the Civil War, one of the primary goals of newly freed men and women was to locate children, siblings, and spouses who had been lost to other slaveowners through auctions and trades. It became a point of dignity and pride “to highlight the fact that they had managed to maintain a sense of family and community under unimaginable conditions where parents did not have authority over their own children and the sanctity of marriage was not recognized,” says Navies.
Family was defined in ways “other than blood,” Navies adds, and “Juneteenth celebrations honor all of these bonds. Those of blood and those who have earned the titles of brother sister cousin aunt and uncle through struggle and experience.”
Celebrations of the end of slavery have been marked at different dates over the years: September 22, the day that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862; January 1, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863; January 31, the day that the 13th Amendment passed Congress in 1865, officially abolishing the institution of slavery; and April 9, the day that Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses Grant.
But Juneteenth has endured, in part, due to the significance of marking the date of freedom for the last slaves in America. It has also lasted for two other reasons. First, the travel of southern Blacks from Texas during the Great Migration—when six million Black Americans left Southern states for the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970—and spread Juneteenth celebrations to other parts of the country. Second, during the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968—an initiative conceived by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a delegate from Texas suggested rallying around Juneteenth. When delegates returned to their home cities after the campaign, they brought the idea of celebrating Juneteenth with them.
“Americans are searching for ways to come together and heal. Juneteenth provides a context in which to do that. It is a holiday in which all Americans who believe in family, freedom and joy can rally around,” Navies says. “In the spirit of Juneteenth, let us never forget that sacrifice is made so that we have the luxury to experience freedom and to interrogate its evolving meanings. Let us celebrate our families and our children and let us express our joy to be alive in the company of like minds and hearts.”