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Celebrating Juneteenth

A close-up view of the Juneteenth red and blue flag

The Current Landscape
On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

“All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history,” President Biden said at a ceremony at the White House, noting that it was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1983. He said signing the law was one of the greatest honors he will have as president.

Juneteenth is a 158-year-old holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the United States.  

Opal Lee, who organized the effort to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday, had this to say:  

“Unity, freedom is what Juneteenth is all about. So I decided that I would walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. …We’ve carried 1,500,000 signatures to Congress to let them know it’s just not one little lady in tennis shoes and her little group called the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation who feel that Juneteenth needs to be a national holiday. Let’s celebrate freedom from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July, because we weren’t all free in 1776.”

Historical Significance  
A combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” the name represents the date in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved Africans of the surrender of General Lee and the end of slavery. General Granger’s speech included a reading of General Order 3iii:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation for the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

Even though President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect more than two years prior, this announcement was a surprise to the more than 250,000 enslaved Africans living in this Confederate state who had not yet been freed. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being put into effect in 1863, it was not immediately implemented in states still under Confederate control.

While some stayed to explore opportunities as paid laborers (which bound them to woefully unjust contractual agreements that led to sharecropping, yet another form of slavery), many African Americans fled plantations and the southern geographic region for the north. Even with no place to go, they now had legal freedom.

The post-emancipation era, also known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), was a time of great uncertainty. The country lacked a comprehensive, cohesive, and strategic plan to politically, legally, socially, and academically support African Americans who struggled to navigate newfound freedom. However, these formerly enslaved people immediately sought to establish schools, run for political offices, advocate for legislation, fight for change, and reunite with family members from whom they had been separated during slavery. Considering their 200+ years of enslavement, this was nothing short of remarkable—not even a full generation removed from slavery.

In Texas, Juneteenth became a state holiday in 1979. It’s also referred to as “Jubilee Day,” “Emancipation Day” and “Freedom Day!”
 Two black and white pictures side-by-side depicting black families dressed up, while holding musical instruments.Caption: Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900 in Texas. Credit: Austin History Center.

The Juneteenth Flag
The Juneteenth Flag was designed in 1997 by activist and organizer Ben Haith, who founded the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, in collaboration with Verlene Hines, Azim, and Eliot Des. It was revised in 2000 to include the date June 19, 1865 to become the flag we know today.

The white star represents both Texas the Lone Star State, as well as the freedom of Black Americans in all 50 states. The bursting outline around the star is inspired by a nova, a term used by astronomers to mean a new star. It represents a new beginning for Black Americans. The curve/arc that extends across the width of the flag represents a new horizon for opportunities and promise. The use of red, white and blue represents the American flag and the reminder that the enslaved and their descendants were, and are, Americans.
the Juneteenth flag flying proudly on a flagpole. Credit: CNN.

How Can You Celebrate or Recognize Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is celebrated annually, in some way, in nearly all states. Many families and communities commemorate this legacy of resilience and hope with cookouts, parades, parties, concerts, and other similar events that affirm Black culture.

According to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, “the stakes are a little different. Many African Americans, Black Americans, feel as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard...I think Juneteenth feels a little different now.”

The most jubilant celebrations take place in Texas, the holiday’s birthplace. Because of its Southern roots, barbecue is a must, and red foods like strawberry soda and red velvet cake are traditionally served as the color is “a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage,” according to The New York Times. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation president Steve Williams also encourages readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.  

For anyone who isn’t Black but would like to recognize Juneteenth, June 19 is a great day to honor and embrace Black culture through its art and history. Take the opportunity to learn about major firsts from African Americans, read a book by a Black author or buy from Black-owned companies. Most importantly, remember that all of those things shouldn’t just happen on Juneteenth, but every day. Why not celebrate the independence of everyone in our country?

There’s never been a better time than now to educate, advocate, and celebrate Juneteenth. We hope you take the time this holiday to do just that. Feel free to explore the events and links below for Juneteenth events around Ohio.

Juneteenth Ohio Festival - Downtown Columbus

Juneteenth 2023 - Dayton

WeRise Celebrates Juneteenth - Westerville

36th Annual Juneteenth Festival - Cincinnati

Juneteenth Celebration - Reynoldsburg

If you’re looking for more ways to support the black community, scroll through Experience Columbus’ list of black-owned businesses to support them throughout the year, and not just in June.

Download a digital guide to Juneteenth, brought to you by the ESC’s Equity Committee.