For many, this will be the first time celebrating Juneteenth. We asked Zenell Brown to guide us through the new federal holiday and its history.
On June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. That act established Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This year, many states, counties, local municipalities, and private businesses are following the federal government’s precedent and for the first time will close up shop in observation of Juneteenth.
What Is Juneteenth and How Is It Celebrated?
Before we turn out the office lights and get ready for this day off, let’s remember President Biden’s words: “All Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history.” To that end, to borrow from Historian Mitch Kachun, we must educate, celebrate, and recommit.
We must educate ourselves about the Civil War and the birth of Juneteenth. Freeing enslaved people was not the focus of the Civil War initially and there are many inconsistencies in how the issue of slavery was approached by the United States and the Union government Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger marched into Texas to publicly announce to the enslaved people that they were free. Absolute equality was guaranteed and enforced right then and there for 250,000 Black men, women and children.
National and local libraries and museums will host educational events to celebrate Juneteenth. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a video tour of its Slavery to Freedom exhibit. We must take this time to educate ourselves and recognize the contributions of Black, African-American people in the building of the nation and in the continued progress of the nation.
Equipped with a better understanding of Juneteenth’s history and significance, you are ready to celebrate the holiday with a focus of reverence — not meaningless performativity or commercialization.
With every good celebration, there is usually a gathering of people, good food and music, and the goals are fun and enjoyment. The same is true for Juneteenth. This jubilee celebration of emancipation and independence is worthy of fireworks, flags and parades, as well as the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Neighbors can stake “Happy Juneteenth” signs in their lawns in support of the holiday and the African American community.
Wherever you go on June 19, 2022, extend a smile and bring greetings to let those you encounter know you are observing the Day of Jubilee. Pinterest and Google have a number of celebration ideas for schools, workplaces and communities. Visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture website’s extensive collection of videos and articles (or attend living museum performances in person). There’s even a website, Juneteenth.com, with history, swag, and an opportunity to support a commemorative stamp.
Let’s be honest, there is still work to be done. Although Juneteenth was a celebration of the end of slavery in the Confederate state, slavery did not end in the United States until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865. Still, there have been permutations of slavery and consequences that have plagued and continue to plague African American communities: Jim Crow laws, segregation, pipelines to prison and discrimination, as well as the inequities in housing, education and health care. We must now focus attention on modern-day oppressors.
The amazing thing about the United States is her continued journey to equality, securing and acknowledging freedom and liberty for all people, and eradicating mistakes and challenges in that pathway. Juneteenth serves as a marker for all of us in the legal community to recommit to our path forward.
One last thing: before you reach to turn off the lights and close the door, “Happy Juneteenth!”
Illustrations © Zanelle Brown.