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Here’s What You Need to Know About Juneteenth & How to Celebrate it This Year

Educate yourself about Juneteenth and support the movement.

Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty
The Denver Juneteenth Celebration, 2011. | Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty
The Denver Juneteenth Celebration, 2011. | Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty

Juneteenth, a 155-year-old holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, has received only a fraction of the recognition it deserves (e.g. it isn't a federal holiday). But the June 19 celebration has been amplified amid steadfast Black Lives Matter protests this year, and today’s events are shaping up to look a lot bigger than in years past. 

Former Texas State Representative Al Edwards, who introduced the bill making Juneteenth state holiday, said in 2007 that America needs Juneteenth, because “every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations.” 

In order to promote equality and support the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s crucial to get educated on Juneteenth’s history, its progress towards national recognition, and the ways we can celebrate and observe the holiday going forward. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know, for today and every day:

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Milwaukee's Juneteenth Day Festival, 2019. | Dylan Buell/Stringer/Getty

What is Juneteenth? 

Juneteenth, otherwise referred to as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Emancipation Day,” commemorates the end of slavery in the US. More specifically, it recognizes the day -- June 19 -- in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to tell enslaved African-Americans that they were free. 

Dr. Nakia Parker, a research associate in the Department of History at Michigan State, told Thrillist that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which standard American history education touches on all too briefly, actually happened two years earlier. Parker said there isn't a clear consensus among historians on why exactly the news took two years to spread to Texas. She did make it clear, however, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not mark the final end of slavery; that was the 13th Amendment, in December of 1865.

“If you’re a Confederate, you don’t recognize Lincoln as a leader,” she said, “and you don’t recognize the Union as the government, so most slaves that were still under Confederate rule stayed under slavery.”

It wasn’t until after the 13th Amendment was passed that people really began celebrating Juneteenth. 

“Around 1868, in Austin, Texas, the Freedmen's Bureau started to organize Juneteenth as a celebration,” Parker said. The Freedmen's Bureau was a federal government agency that protected freed slaves against violence and provided them with education. 

A few years later, a group of African Americans decided they wanted a specific place to celebrate June 19th. 

“They got together and raised what I believe was around $1000 and purchased a 10-acre area near Houston to celebrate, which they called Emancipation Park," she said.

 Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty
Denver's Juneteenth celebration, 2008. | Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty

Will Juneteenth become a national holiday? 

Progress towards Juneteenth’s national recognition has been depressingly slow-moving. Texas became the first state to recognize the holiday just 40 years ago and, although 47 other states have since followed suit (Hawaii and Montana… step up, y’all), the event was just another workday for most folks across the US. 

That’s all starting to change now. This week, the NFL, and companies like Google and Nike have announced that offices will be closed on Friday, and national recognition and corporate observance of Juneteenth are building across the US.

HellaCreative, a collective of Black Bay Area creatives and friends, formed right when California was going under coronavirus lockdown. The collective is currently demanding companies publicly pledge their observation of the holiday. Its #hellajuneteenth campaign blew up on social media over the weekend, and corporate responses followed -- more than 50 major companies have publicly pledged their recognition of Juneteenth. 

“We’re incredibly surprised and overwhelmed with the response that it’s received,” said HellaCreative co-founder Miles Dotson when reached by Thrillist.

“We made a statement that, whether or not [Juneteenth] is recognized as a national holiday, we would implore you to take this day as a day of freedom for everyone.”

The collective’s website provides resources and equipment to help Black employees and allies encourage their companies to recognize the holiday; this includes templates for requesting off work and email “away messages” that explain the purpose of the employee’s absence. 

Dotson said he’s heard the movement is getting attention on Capitol Hill, and that support from large corporations is putting pressure on the government to recognize the holiday nationally. But he says we can’t stop at national recognition of Juneteenth.

“I think in a lot of ways you can see that as half step and in a moment of progress,” he said. “You know, it's really important that there's a forceful step forward into progress.” 

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Boston's Juneteenth Celebration, 2014. | Boston Globe/Getty

How is Juneteenth celebrated in 2020? 

Juneteenth is a time for parades, backyard barbeques, and other mostly outdoor gatherings. As Kristen Adaway wrote in her piece about Black-owned NYC bakeries selling red velvet cake, Juneteenth is a red-themed celebration, meaning you’ll find a ton of red foods (like beans and watermelon) and drinks (like punch and West African hibiscus tea) during the festivities. 

“Also, black-eyed peas and cornbread,” Parker added, “which aren’t red, but have some symbolism and African American community.” 

Parker told Thrillist that red -- particularly dark red -- is usually a symbol of resilience and freedom. 

“You know, Juneteenth celebrations are wonderful -- barbecues, singing, dancing -- but also a time of reflection which I think it really should be especially this year,” she said, noting the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted people of color. “It's even more important to think about what was behind the idea of Juneteenth and why African Americans wanted to celebrate it and want to celebrate it now.”

Juneteenth gatherings are going to look a lot different this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions and a national priority shift. Some LGBTQ Pride marches have reoriented to support Black Lives Matter (let's not forget Pride's important roots in protest and the activism of trans women of color) and many BLM movement organizers across the US have announced Juneteenth rallies, marches, and vigils in place of celebrations. 

There are, of course, tons of celebrations going on both in real life (on a smaller scale) and virtually. Virtual celebrations include music festivals, seminars, and dance parties. 

Tverdokhlib/shutterstock
Black Lives Matter protest in Miami, 2020. | Tverdokhlib/shutterstock

How can you support the cause today?

As national media and corporate recognition builds around Juneteenth, we People of the Internet have access to an overflow of information on how to support supporting Black businesses, organizations, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are ways you can support your city on a local level:

You can also donate to these national organizations -- which include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and mental health organization called BEAM -- to support the Black community in sustainable ways. 

Writer Ralph Ellison wrote in his novel Juneteenth, “It's the little things that find us out, the little things we refuse to do in order to avoid doing the big things that can save us.”

Therein lies our call to action, and action, and more action in little and then big ways, until racial equality in America is finally achieved.

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Ruby Anderson is a News Writer at Thrillist. Send your tips to randerson@thrillist.com.