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6 Ways to Celebrate and Commemorate the History Behind Juneteenth

The newest national holiday recognizes the end of slavery

Elected officials, community leaders, youth and drum and marching bands take part in the second annual Juneteenth Parade, in Philadelphia, PA
A Juneteenth Parade in Philadelphia, PA
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, after President Biden signed legislation that recognizes June 19 as the day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

Though you may have heard of Juneteenth, do you know the true meaning behind it?

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This historical event dates back to June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned that they were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious Southern states were free, it took more than two years for the news to spread to Texas and for officials there to announce slavery had been abolished. The holiday commemorating that day is now known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day and/or Emancipation Day, as it marks the day all Black people in the South were finally free. Slavery was outlawed nationwide with the ratification of the 15th Amendment six months later.

"For African Americans in the United States, [Juneteenth] truly is that independence day because prior to that, even though slaves had been freed in many of the other Confederate states, Texas remained a state where they continued to enslave folks,” says Greg Francis, 53, an attorney who focuses on civil rights. It's important to understand the history and its impact because there's a direct link to problems with systemic racism today, he says.

Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, in 1980. Since then, more than 45 other states have followed suit. On June 17, the federal legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday was signed into law after passing unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by a vote of 415-14 in the House.

Two-thirds of Americans support the idea, according to a 2020 Harris Poll taken in the wake of national protests following George Floyd's death last year.

Whether you've known about Juneteenth your entire life or you're just learning about this important day, it's one everyone can commemorate. Here are six ways to do so.

1. Learn the full history

Although June 19, 1865, marks Juneteenth, the end of slavery was not so clear-cut. That's why it's valuable to start by educating yourself and others about the full history of Juneteenth and the events leading up to it. The many resources available include the book Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison and the film Miss Juneteenth, this list of books to read with grandchildren about the holiday and this video tour through the Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Randi B celebrates Juneteenth with friends and family
On a trip to Mexico with friends, Randi Bryant (seated at the head of the table) is celebrating her birthday and Juneteenth.
Courtesy Randi Bryant

2. Celebrate

Frederick Goodall, 51, from Houston says he has celebrated Juneteenth his entire life. It's also his mother's birthday, making the holiday doubly important in his family. He celebrates by attending parades and hosting a barbecue, like many others traditionally do. “It's a celebration of freedom. It's a celebration of what we've overcome.” Goodall says. “Just indulge yourself in the joy of that."

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Red is the color associated with the holiday, as it symbolizes sacrifice and transition. Celebrations typically include red foods like red velvet cake, red beverages, watermelon and barbecued meats. Popular sides including corn bread, collard greens and cabbage represent prosperity, good fortune and wealth in Black history.

There's no wrong way to celebrate. Randi Bryant from San Francisco turned 50 in December but postponed celebrating due to COVID-19. She's now planning to celebrate her birthday and Juneteenth this month with a girls’ trip to Mexico with about 40 friends. The group will reflect on the day, release lanterns in honor of their ancestors and discuss how to continue moving the journey forward, Bryant says.

3. Support Black-owned businesses

One of the top ways people say they will mark Juneteenth is by supporting Black-owned businesses, according to a May 2021 poll conducted by Branded Research. Any product or service you need can be found and purchased through a Black-owned business. Here are a few options on where to buy Black-owned home goodsapparelskin care and wines recommended by Sisters from AARP, the newsletter celebrating Black women.

4. Acknowledge and spread the word

Educating yourself about Juneteenth is just the first step; it's also important to spread the word and educate others. That same Harris Poll also found that 33 percent of Americans were “not at all aware” of Juneteenth. Karen Arrington, 62, from Marlboro, Maryland, who is a goodwill ambassador to Sierra Leone, a CEO and a philanthropist, says she's intentional about having open conversations about Black history and pushing for actions through her advocacy for Black youth. During these meetings, “we have long, sometimes uncomfortable conversations where [people] say, ‘Well, we support you,’ but what does that mean? Telling me you support me is one thing, but you've got to take action, because otherwise you become complicit,” Arrington says.

Bryant says everyone should start with their own sphere of influence by advocating for recognition of Juneteenth — for example, if your workplace or school does not have the holiday off, question why. “There's no reason that Fourth of July should receive greater prominence than Juneteenth,” Bryant says.

5. Donate to supportive organizations

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is by donating to organizations that support Black communities. Find organizations that resonate with your beliefs or support causes you are passionate about. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Audre Lorde Project, the Bail Project and the Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund are a few to consider.

Dr. Ross-Hammond at a Juneteenth celebration
Amelia Ross-Hammond has organized past Juneteenth celebrations.
Courtesy Amelia Ross-Hammond

6. Attend Juneteenth events

Amelia Ross-Hammond, 71, founder and chairman of the Virginia African American Cultural Center, has organized Juneteenth celebrations for the Virginia Beach community for the past few years. Events include a self-guided tour, performances and an art walk; some, such as  photography exhibition "Portraits From a Place of Grace," a tribute to Virginia Beach's Black neighborhoods and residents, are available online. Ross-Hammond recommends virtual celebrations if your city is not hosting one or you'd rather stay home due to COVID-19.

Several cities have robust offerings for the holiday, both online and virtually. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has a full lineup of digital resources to mark the holiday, including musical performances, lectures and a guide to researching ancestors. Juneteenth NY will host a three-day, online and in-person Juneteenth summit featuring performances, a parade and lectures. And if you're on the West Coast, check out the African American Community Service Agency's 40th Annual Juneteenth in the Park Festival in Santa Barbara County, with events with a focus on wellness, education and entertainment spread throughout the area.

The hope is to pass down the history and truly learn from the past, Ross-Hammond says. “This is our story, and it can't be kept in a box. This is the time to reflect,” she says. “Time to open up and have an honest discussion, and a time to think critically of what we can do so that we don't have to revisit this.”