By Tammy Pitts - MNA Director of Communications
You’re probably hearing a whole lot about Juneteenth these days as we get closer to June 19, 2021. I always find it surprising when people tell me they don’t know about Juneteenth. As a child, I knew exactly what Juneteenth was because my mother was a firm believer in children learning about Black history. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African Americans that the war had ended, and they were now free. I can only imagine the shock and jubilation the slaves felt. Actually, they had been free since January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but according to history buffs, the Emancipation Proclamation had little impact in Texas due to the small number of Union troops on hand to enforce the order. Slave owners ignored the order until General Granger’s regiment showed up with plenty of manpower to force the locals to comply and free the slaves. Texas was the last Confederate state to have the proclamation announced according to Cliff Robinson, founder of Juneteenth.com.
The fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday
Juneteenth has long been an important holiday in the Black community. Through the years of Jim Crow, the lynchings of Black Americans and civil unrest, Black people continued to celebrate and push for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. It wasn’t until 2020 that Juneteenth became prominent on the nation’s calendar following the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans and the massive racial injustice protests that followed. Suddenly, there was new momentum to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and this week that finally happened. On Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day. Exactly one day later, the House also passed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday and effective immediately. Friday, June 18, 2021 is the first federal Juneteenth holiday in American history. Imagine that. The date that marks the end of slavery in the United States is now a federal holiday. If only our ancestors could witness how far we have come.
Juneteenth celebrations over the years
The first celebrations of Juneteenth reportedly started in Texas in 1866 and spread across the country. Once freed, many African Americans fled the south and migrated to the north and other cities. But for years, former slaves and their descendants would make the annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on June 19, to celebrate their freedom. Initially, families celebrated by gathering together to pray, feast on a big meal and reflect. The celebrations would later include cookouts, historical and cultural readings, and musical performances.
Despite many organizations and Black households celebrating Juneteenth annually, many people nationwide didn’t know about the day or recognize its importance until it gained momentum in 2020 amid national outrage for racial injustice to end. Today, there is renewed interest in celebrating Juneteenth with a growing number of companies pledging support by making it a paid holiday and holding events to foster reflection and giving. This Saturday, Americans from coast to coast will gather in parks, community centers, and backyards for Juneteenth festivals, parades, parties, food, and music.
The importance of red drinks and food on Juneteenth tables
Juneteenth is definitely celebrated in my family. Plans are already underway for a big family barbecue this Saturday with plenty of music, laughter, and red drinks. Red drinks including strawberry soda pop are a must at Juneteenth celebrations. Why? According to the stories from our ancestors, the red foods and drinks symbolized the blood of the millions of slaves who suffered and died.
However, history professors say the color red in West African cultures is a symbol of strength, spirituality, and life and death. Culinary historian Adrian Miller says red drinks at Juneteenth celebrations are linked to the fruits of two native West African plants: the kola nut and hibiscus which were brought across the Atlantic. Enslaved people cooked with them and added the reddish kola nut to drinks like homemade whiskey. After slavery, it was common to see lemonades and other drinks in Black households in the south infused with red fruits such as strawberries or cherries.
Whatever the origin of the items on the Juneteenth table, I can tell you our table will be packed with plenty of red fruits, drinks, barbecue ribs, my grandma’s macaroni and cheese, and collard greens. Our family will gather together to laugh, devour a whole lot of good food, and give thanks that we are all together and survived the past year of the pandemic. Happy Juneteenth!
You can celebrate Juneteenth and get involved in the dialogue centered around race and equality by supporting Black-owned businesses, watching Juneteenth events online, reading books written by Black authors, and donating to BIPOC-led nonprofits.