The Meaning of Juneteenth and Five Ways We Can All Celebrate June 19
One of the many messages of 2020 was that our country is still far from the equality our foundational documents aspire to. Access to freedoms, protection, safety, and opportunity in the United States is unequal and falls along lines of gender, race, class, and more. After the killing of George Floyd, as the country reeled in protests and examined the historical and systemic nature of racism, the holiday of Juneteenth became one way to focus learning and actions. For many, especially those of us in New England where the holiday is celebrated by few, it was new and unfamiliar.
And there are reasons why Juneteenth is new for many in Vermont. It’s no secret; Vermont is overwhelmingly white. Yes, we’re known for snow and skiing, but that’s not what I’m talking about. We’re really white. Like get made fun of white. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2017, 94.5% of the population in Vermont identified as white. Only Maine had a higher percentage with 94.7%. So, when it comes to awareness of Juneteenth and the celebrations of non-white Americans, it would make sense that, as a whole, we in Vermont might have some learning to do.
So, if you know about Juneteenth and have celebrated it before, this information may not be new for you (but could be worth sharing with a friend). If you’re just hearing about the holiday or want to learn more about its history, meaning, and how to celebrate, read on.
SO, WHAT IS JUNETEENTH?
Juneteenth is a commemoration of the end of slavery and a celebration of liberation and freedom in the United States. The date of June 19 is significant because on that day in 1865, Union Soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, bringing the news and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation had legally freed enslaved African Americans in January 1863, but for more than two years after that, slavery continued unchecked. The Civil War ended in April of 1865, but it took an additional two months for enslaved people in the deep south to learn about and realize the freedoms they were now granted under law.
Now, can you imagine what that must have felt like? Firsthand historical records show this news was met with great celebration, and when the anniversary of that date came the next year, it was commemorated as “Jubilee Day.” This is recognized as the first Juneteenth. On the way to being known as Juneteenth, the name changed over time. It was also known as “Freedom Day” to recognize that the celebration marks the first day in the history of the country when citizens of all races were free.
Largely celebrated by Black communities in the South, and later in the North, for over 150 years, Juneteenth has only recently started to be recognized by state governments and the general population. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth in 1979. Currently, 47 states have followed, with Vermont being the 27th state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 2008. Juneteenth remains unrecognized by the United States as a federal holiday, despite multiple bills introducing legislation to make it so, including one before Congress currently.
WHAT HAPPENS ON JUNETEENTH?
Juneteenth celebrations are joyous events that include parades, barbecue, music, dancing, speeches, and more. Red-colored foods like strawberry soda, red velvet cakes, watermelon, and hot sauce are a mainstay of Juneteenth picnics and hold African culinary tradition as well as themes of suffering and resilience.
Along with the festivities, this is a time for remembrance. Events recognize the history of slavery in the United States, emancipation, and the continuing struggle for civil rights. Through participation, communities reinvigorate and affirm a commitment to work towards equality and justice for all people.
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WHY IS JUNETEENTH FOR EVERYONE (EVEN WHITE FOLK) IN AMERICA?
Juneteenth is a holiday defined and created by Black communities, but can be recognized by anyone who wants to celebrate liberation, freedom, and the end of slavery in our country. Opal Lee, one of the key supporters of growing the holiday’s recognition, points out that emancipation would not have happened were it not for the work of “Quakers along the Underground railroad, abolitionists both black and white like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, soldiers and many others who gave their lives for the freedom of the enslaved.”
The holiday is also a time to acknowledge the distance our country has to cover between the aspirational language of our founding documents and the lived experience of far too many. In celebrating the progress that was made in 1865 and recognizing the work still to be done, the holiday brings together all who are striving for that “more perfect union.”
SO, HOW CAN I CELEBRATE AND RECOGNIZE JUNETEENTH?
So you’re ready to join in celebrating this holiday but not sure what to do? Here are some simple ways to get started.
- Share the good news of Juneteenth!
Yes, this is cause for celebration, so say it loud! Let people know you want to recognize Juneteenth and greet your friends on the day with, “Happy Juneteenth!” If they don’t understand what you’re talking about, that’s a great chance to share the history and why you are celebrating.
- Recognize and share the history.
Juneteenth is a time to talk about the history of slavery in our country, how far we’ve come, and how we got here. Talk about how much slavery was part of the fabric of our country’s founding. Talk about the Civil War and what social and economic factors drove it. Remember the people who gave so much in the struggle for civil rights and equality.
- Find others who want to celebrate.
If you don’t find someone who is already planning a Juneteenth celebration, why not get your friends together and celebrate freedom and liberty for all people in the United States? Invite your friends to join you for the day for food, games, and time together. There are guides out there on how to do it, but the important part is to be with people and reflect on why you are there. One direct way is to read the Emancipation Proclamation and see what comes up in conversation.
- Take the day to learn more about institutionalized racism and the experience of being Black in America.
- Go to a public Juneteenth event.
Perhaps one of the best ways to celebrate Juneteenth is to go to a public event that is organized by people who have knowledge of and experience with the holiday. You’ll see how it’s done, support the folks who have carried this tradition for a long time, and publicly affirm that Juneteenth is an important holiday and should be given recognition and space to be celebrated. A quick search online for “Juneteenth celebrations near me” should get you started.
If you are in Vermont, the City of Burlington is holding its first Juneteenth event ever and is throwing quite a party. The event is free and there is music, food, theater, art and more. Learn more about Burlington’s Juneteenth Celebration on the event website.
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Image by vhines200. CC BY-ND 2.0. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of VSECU.
About Simeon Chapin
Simeon Chapin is the community impact officer at VSECU, a values-based credit union located in Vermont, and has over a decade of experience driving business, brands, and engagement toward social good. Simeon specializes in business development and manages strategy and execution, measurement, public and community relations, impact investing, and philanthropy. With a creative, integrated, and rigorous approach, Simeon brings people together to propel positive change and culture forward. Simeon is continuously inspired by the natural world and the innovation that comes out of challenge and perseverance. When not at work, Simeon likes to be with his family in the mountains, on a bike on Vermont gravel roads, or listening to music from all corners of the world.