After the last year or so, we all need a reason to celebrate, right?
What is Juneteenth?
The term “Juneteenth” is the melding of the month of June and the 19th day of the month as June 19, 1865, is the date that officially commemorates the last groups of enslaved people learning of their freedom. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being passed several months prior, news of emancipation did not spread as rapidly as news spreads today. Juneteenth marks the day that the final groups of enslaved people living in Texas were freed.
A Little History Lesson
Prior to the Civil War, many of the Southern states—strongly dependent on the contributions of enslaved Black people to keep their economies, towns, and even their households functioning—decided to secede, or break away, from the rest of the nation. The Confederate States of America formed and grew to include 13 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
While the Civil War ravaged the South, some slaveowners migrated to western-most Texas to flee the middle of the action. This migration included over 150,000 enslaved people, according to some accounts. Slavery indeed existed in certain parts of Texas, but there were no major invasions in the state during the early parts of the Civil War. So slavery, for many, functioned as it did before the war. Interestingly, slavery had developed quite differently in Texas than it had in other Southern states; the numbers of slaves in the state didn’t grow exponentially until after 1850, which is when Texas gained statehood.
Slavery was supposedly abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued in 1863, but this was only in certain states. It wasn’t until the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, that the Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished slavery. Enslaved people throughout the Confederate states anxiously awaited the news of official emancipation and were able to embrace it to some degree, especially in places where troops had marched and made the announcement. However, Texas still functioned almost separately from the other states, extending the existence of slavery in Texas.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger, accompanied by federal troops, formally announced emancipation in Galveston, Texas. But freedom was no easy feat in Texas, considering the strange adoption and stubbornness of the institution in the state. The delay of freedom caused confusion and disarray among Texans. However, this confusion and delay surrounding emancipation was not strong enough to break the spirit of newly freed Black Americans. Thus, Juneteenth was born from the prayers, love, feasting, spirit, song, and ultimately the freedom of the men and women gaining a sense of personhood and liberation that June 19.
The following year in 1866, the first official Juneteenth celebrations began and have continued since then.
Access and Inequity
The story of Juneteenth—the delayed timing of emancipation—illustrates the power of both access and timing. Eerily, both delayed timing and access are hallmark of the some of the biggest health disparities we see today.
Today, the average life expectancy of Black Americans is shorter than that of non-Black people, and Black Americans and their families are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and the burdens of these diseases. In addition, despite cancer and heart disease affecting all Americans, these conditions disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Black women are in even more fragile health situations for various historic and socioeconomic reasons. During slavery, the Black woman’s body was of immense interest to those in positions of power; this interest simultaneously made these women’s bodies sites of egregious abuse. Today, Black women earn less than other women, have higher unemployment and poverty rates, and are more likely to be responsible for entire households. In terms of health, Black women have higher rates of preterm births, and we see higher mortality rates for babies born to Black women. We also see higher incidence of stroke-related deaths among Black women. Such health disparities are products of the legacy of American slavery as they are all firmly rooted in the racial, economic, and social inequities left behind by this “peculiar institution.”
Both the access to quality healthcare and health information and the timing of disease detection and treatment continue to perpetuate cycles of poor health among Black Americans. These cycles will continue until antiracist policies are developed to dismantle social, racial, economic, and political barriers to quality healthcare for all Americans.
Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth
You never need anyone’s approval to acknowledge dates that you think should be celebrated. So just as you find creative ways to celebrate other important dates, the same can be done on Juneteenth!
Some of the traditional ways Juneteenth was celebrated included festivals and outdoor gatherings, events involving family and friends, and religious and educational gatherings. Here are a few more ideas to help you acknowledge Juneteenth as the holiday it is. Holidays do, in fact, allow us to escape everyday stressors. This escape is even more important when considering the ongoing pandemic and the cabin fever currently affecting many Americans.
- If you’re within driving distance of Montgomery, Alabama, consider a day trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum, both of which honor the lives and legacies of the countless Black Americans victimized by slavery, racism, and injustice in America. The EJI’s discussion of Juneteenth can be found at https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/jun/19. (If you ever visited the EJI’s memorial, you’d also get to take a peek at the Confederacy’s White House, which just so happens to be across the street from the Memorial.)
- If you’ve already returned to comfortably gathering with family outside your home or with other people, Juneteenth is a great time to fire up the grill just as you would on July 4 and engage in typical Independence Day activities. After all, Juneteenth does represent the independence of the last groups of enslaved Black people.
- A Thanksgiving- or Christmas-styled family dinner is also a great way to celebrate Juneteenth. This could be made more complete by gifting t-shirts, keychains, or other small tokens by which we acknowledge some part of Black culture. Such an exchange gives us an opportunity to support a Black-owned business that makes Juneteenth apparel or anything else “for the culture.” Another way to add family fun is to plan a small art project, such as a guided painting session, that children and adults can enjoy.
- Check your local news outlets and activity listings as many people already acknowledge and publicly celebrate Juneteenth in parks and other public locations. For example, in Atlanta, there’s a litany of scheduled activities including a 5K, a fashion show, day parties, homeless drives, and more.
- Another way to celebrate and acknowledge Juneteenth from the comfort of your home is to search Freedmen’s Bureau records. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress in 1865 to support newly freed men and women by providing various services to support them in their transition. Although Congress withdrew support of the Bureau less than 10 years after its inception, Freedmen’s Bureau records contain a wealth of information on Black Americans, this information dating back to the 1800s. A starting point to search these records may begin at https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/2721171.
- Host a virtual event with family and/or friends that may include learning and education about the holiday or anything else related to Black liberation and progress in America. Or you may just host a virtual “happy hour.” Either way, a group of like-minded family and friends only equates to enjoyment!
- You can also support a Black-owned restaurant or bar for happy hour or for dinner with family or friends. If you’re not yet comfortable dining out, you can order take-out if you’d still like to support a Black-owned restaurant. Finding and wearing a festive Juneteenth t-shirt will support your cause and communicate that you openly support the justice and fairness of Black American people.
- If you’re the festive type and tend to participate in office and workplace celebrations, you may want to acknowledge the holiday by sending a Juneteenth-themed e-mail to your coworkers, team, or colleagues. Many Americans are aware of neither existence nor the history of Juneteenth, so sending an informative holiday message would be a great way to bring attention to a holiday that should be recognized and celebrated by anyone who desires to live in a racially equitable society. Locating an image to include in the message and possibly including a few details from this post here would be a great way to spread the word! (And take the day off, why don’t you?)
These are just a few ways to acknowledge Juneteenth and enjoy the relaxation, joy, and relief that holidays usually bring. However you choose to celebrate Juneteenth, be sure it’s met with the joy and excitement of the liberation of the many brilliant Black people with spirits that carried us into a new era. Just as they paved the way for us, we must embrace our roles as builders who can play some part in strengthening communities of Black girls and boys, sisters and brothers, and men and women. As you learn more, be sure to teach more so that we all share an awareness of milestones that have changed the narrative of Black people in America. Juneteenth is indeed a day to celebrate!
Message from the CEO
In staunch commitment to the health and wellness of Black women and girls, the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) recognizes that the fight for health equality is among many others in the greater battle for racial justice in America. For nearly 40 years now, BWHI has stood on the front lines, tirelessly working to inform, to educate, to serve, and to ultimately empower Black communities in a myriad of ways. Acknowledging our past is essential to understanding the present battle for racial and health equality.
However, in connecting the horrors of slavery to modern-day health disparities, we also see a reason to rejoice. Juneteenth is a day that we can, in unison, celebrate the resilience and strength of Black Americans as survivors. At BWHI, we acknowledge Juneteenth in the holiday spirit as a day of liberation, of self-care, and of understanding how far we have come. We also recognize the importance of timing and access, both of which serve as barriers to health equality for many Black women and girls. Let’s all continue to work together to dismantle these barriers and create a society where the Black woman’s health matches her heroism!
June 18 Update
As of June 17, 2021, Juneteenth has become a federal holiday called “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” However, federal acknowledgment of emancipation is only a small step along the way of a much longer journey to racial justice and equality in the United States. The legacy of American slavery continues to drive systemic and racial inequality across many domains, including healthcare, education, housing, employment, and the legal and political systems. In celebrating the small victories, our focus should remain fixed on true justice for a