On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday in America. But in many pockets of the country it has been celebrated since long before then. Juneteenth, a portmanteau for June and nineteenth, began on that date in Galveston, Texas in 1865 when General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3.

“It's basically the declaration, based upon the Emancipation Proclamation, that all enslaved people in the area are free,” says Tyler Parry, professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In the years to come, Black residents of Galveston and surrounding areas continued to commemorate and celebrate this “Freedom Day.” Over time, it spread to more regions of the United States and, whether officially recognized or not, became an important holiday for African American history and culture.

Since 1865, the holiday’s popularity and the strength of its celebrations have waxed and waned. Alliah Agostini, author of The Juneteenth Story and The Juneteenth Cookbook, points to periods like the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the racial reckoning of 2020, and Juneteenth’s confirmation as a federal holiday in 2021 as times when the holiday’s traction has grown.

Today, Juneteenth continues to find fresh forms as more Americans begin to celebrate it. Still, many traditions dating back to its origin remain central to the holiday.

1. Feasts

Food has been integral to Juneteenth celebrations since the start. Agostini’s research has found that feasts were common in the early days. But given the deep meaning of the holiday, especially for early celebrants who had themselves been enslaved, Agostini described the shared meal as “more like a church picnic in a sense.”  The tradition continues today. At festivals, block parties and parks, families and communities come together to break bread and contemplate the holiday’s meaning and origin.

2. Eating Red Foods

Juneteenth foods
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Juneteenth day picnic background with Black Liberation African American flags, sweet salad with cherries and strawberries, strawberry cheesecake.

Certain foods are customary in Juneteenth celebrations, and traditionally, red foods dominate. The color signifies resilience amid bondage. As Chef Chris Scott, who spearheaded the James Beard Foundation’s first Juneteenth celebration in 2018, explains, “the red symbolizes the blood that was shed by Black Africans and Black Americans during slave capture, slave travel, and slave trade here in the States and in the Caribbean.”

He lists watermelon, strawberries, barbeque, and red velvet cake as traditional red foods to include.

3. Eating 'Good Fortune' Foods

Juneteenth meals often also include traditional African American “good luck foods,” whose recipes have been passed down orally, says Scott. But on this momentous day, they’re cooked with a Juneteenth twist that brings at least a dash of red.

For example, Chef Scott says, “collard greens are cooked the normal way, but on this day they may have red peppers included.” Another “good fortune food,” black-eyed peas, typically eaten on New Year’s, are combined with red rice.

4. Festivities

Emancipation brought great joy, so Juneteenth traditionally involves celebrations and festivities that bring families and larger communities together. Juneteenth festivals, parades, fireworks and block parties are common. Agostini, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, recalled their annual Juneteenth festival, which a Black community organization started in 1976. Like many others around the country, it’s held in a park, and often includes a Miss Juneteenth pageant, a parade, concerts, food, fundraising and vendors selling Afrocentric clothes and jewelry.

5. Commemoration

Communities come together not just to celebrate but also to remember. “Juneteenth holds a special significance for the Black family, embodying both joy and despair as we celebrate our liberation while acknowledging our history of enslavement,” psychotherapist Domenique Harrison says, citing it as “a day of dichotomies.”

Some festivals in the eastern United States ask attendees to bring fruit to send out to the Atlantic Ocean in honor of the ancestors. Others read the declaration from 1865, and some include reenactments of General Granger reading it.

“The crowd has a very emotional response to this,” Parry says of the present-day reenactment in Galveston. “There's something about the words that are being used, and this declaration that all slaves are free, that really resonates with the crowd. And it serves as this important reminder that people need to feel the memory of history.”

6. Education

Juneteenth has a long history as a day of learning. Agostini notes that the Freedmen’s Bureau used Juneteenth gatherings in parts of Texas as an opportunity to “teach formerly enslaved people about the rights that freedom offered them.” Though the content has changed, events today similarly include educational components.

“If you go to a Juneteenth celebration, you should have some expectation that you're going to learn,” Parry says, adding that these events also offer a good time and fellowship. In his view, the rise of the Juneteenth holiday, and the teaching that comes with it, has led to deeper awareness of U.S. history.

“The mainstreaming of Juneteenth has at the very least awakened a number of people to the hidden elements of the American past that have just not been prioritized within the curriculum.”

7. Activism

The new knowledge and awareness that Juneteenth events bring is often accompanied by political action. “In addition to food and music, Juneteenth celebrations have featured and continue to feature opportunities for activism related to social disparities, including race, gender, class, healthcare, and the environment, in the form of rallies, seminars, and demonstrations,” says Veronica McComb, Dean of Bryant University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

There’s a long history of Juneteenth celebrations being intertwined with political activism. The Texas State Historical Association notes that early festivities doubled as “political rallies.” And in 1968, a powerful anti-poverty movement, which stemmed from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, held its 50,000-person Solidarity Day in Washington, D.C. on Juneteenth.

In 1976, when the B.U.I.L.D. organization in Buffalo started their Juneteenth festival, it was in response to the nation’s 200-year anniversary that year. They envisioned their celebration as “an alternative or more culturally relevant answer to the bicentennial for Buffalo's black population,” Agostini says. More recently, in 2020, following George Floyd’s death, many Juneteenth celebrations focused on continuing the fight towards racial justice.

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