Juneteenth: A day for reflection, appreciation and education
Celebrating Juneteenth has become more recognized across all areas of the country, especially after it was declared a federal holiday in 2021. But for many members of the Black community, Juneteenth has been a historically and culturally significant holiday since 1865.
Our country’s troubled history of slavery begs the question “how should we think about Juneteenth?” Is it something to gleefully celebrate or to somberly honor? Do we take off work? Have a barbecue? Should the holiday only be celebrated within the Black community or is it something that we should all participate in? And if so, how?
If you’re unsure of what Juneteenth is or how to best commemorate this day, this article is for you. We’ve partnered with leaders in the Black running community to understand the significance of Juneteenth and how to honor it.
What is Juneteenth?
Simply put, Juneteenth recognizes the day the last enslaved African Americans learned of their freedom—June 19, 1865. “But I thought President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863?” you may be wondering. Even though all enslaved persons were supposed to be free on January 1, 1863, many Southern states wanted to hold on to the system of slavery for as long as they could. They didn’t inform enslaved people about the Emancipation Proclamation and Union Soldiers were unable to enforce the law immediately. It wasn’t until two and a half years later, when Major General Gordan Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver the news, that enslaved persons learned that the war was over and all slaves were to be freed.
Despite this, slavery didn’t outright end on Juneteenth. Many slave owners refused to comply with the order, and it was a dangerous time for enslaved people attempting to be freed. Nevertheless, Juneteenth marked a significant turning point, not just in the Civil War but in the trajectory of American society.
How does America recognize Juneteenth?
Ask any American about the Fourth of July and they’ll immediately regale you with tales of booming fireworks, hot dogs on the grill and red, white and blue coloring everything. After all, it’s a day celebrating our freedom from British rule. But what about Juneteenth, a day signifying freedom for all Americans? Disappointingly enough, it hasn’t received the same attention or recognition, even within the Black community.
“I didn’t know about Juneteenth at all growing up,” says Fleet Feet ambassador and yoga guru Adina Crawford. “We didn’t learn about it in school, and we just didn’t have those conversations. You were expected to stay in your lane and that was it. I’m grateful that I'm learning more now than I did then.”
“Personally, I never knew of or celebrated Juneteenth growing up,” says Alison Désir, an author, activist and leader in the running industry. “Part of this has to do with the fact that I'm a first generation American, therefore this event is not necessarily part of my immediate cultural heritage. But the larger reason is because of the incomplete way that history is taught in the United States. The history we are taught regularly omits complexity, prioritizing instead simple narratives that center white people and white perspectives on events. The idea that slavery still existed within the United States despite the Emancipation Proclamation because of its lack of implementation in places that remained under Confederate control complicates an otherwise simplistic narrative of ‘Lincoln freeing the slaves’ that we all learned growing up.”
Despite this, some communities across the country place a larger emphasis on Juneteenth. For Jahdai Bolds, Operating Partner at Fleet Feet Pleasanton, Juneteenth is a time to celebrate with family and participate in an annual Juneteenth celebration he’s attended since he was a teenager in his hometown of Oakland, California.
“The Bay Area’s yearly Juneteenth celebration feels like an all-day party, complete with a parade, music and dancing,” Bolds says. “There’s typically high school bands that perform music written by Black composers or conducted by Black conductors, which is really cool. That’s the only Juneteenth celebration I’ve ever seen.”
How can you honor Juneteenth?
With more recent attention paid to Juneteenth, including its declaration as a federal holiday in 2021, many people are wondering how to honor Juneteenth. Is it a moment for celebration or remembrance, or perhaps both?
“Juneteenth is a recognition of where we are as a country, where we’ve been, where we’re going,” says Jay Ell Alexander, owner and CEO of Black Girls RUN! “I think Juneteenth is definitely a day of reflection, and if you're not Black it's still a day that you can acknowledge. It’s a chance to take a personal inventory of what you’ve done within your community to help us push forward. Because racism is not just a Black person’s problem, it’s something that requires all of us to come together in a collaborative approach.”
Juneteenth is also a day to appreciate those closest to us and the time we get to spend with them.
“When I was growing up, my family would talk a lot about the family separation that occurred during slavery,” Bolds says. “Part of the reason we all get together on Juneteenth is to acknowledge and recognize that we can be around each other whenever we want to with no restrictions. My grandparents would say that we should be together as often as we can since we have the opportunity now. For me, that’s what I've always held on to.”
Juneteenth is also an opportunity to support the Black community. This can mean supporting Black-owned businesses, giving to organizations that support underserved populations or simply showing solidarity by attending community events. For Alexander and Black Girls RUN!, this means participating in a Juneteenth 5K benefitting the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a Museum of African American History in Little Rock, Arkansas. For NYC-based Harlem Run, it means hosting a Juneteenth March 5K benefitting the Harlem Center, a community center offering support services. Bolds says he’ll continue his tradition of attending the Oakland Juneteenth celebration with his local Black Girls RUN! Chapter.
No matter the color of your skin, Juneteenth is an opportunity for education, not just about the holiday but about the history of Black Americans as a whole.
“If you don’t know about Juneteenth, educate yourself,” says Crawford. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Find out the meaning behind it so that you, too, can celebrate Juneteenth.”
Check out these resources to learn more about Juneteenth:
- Juneteenth. National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories. Library of Congress
- Celebrating Juneteenth and what it means. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Why Juneteenth Is Important to Celebrate in Your Community. Wichita State University
All photos courtesy of Mostafa Bassim