June 19, 2021 will mark the 156th
anniversary of Juneteenth, commemorating the day Black people in Texas learned of their freedom. This announcement came two and a half years after enslaved people were declared “free” under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation. Archives from that time show that the declaration brought about a complicated mix of emotions for Black people who were elated at the news of their freedom and hopeful to find family members that they had been forcibly separated from. It also infuriated whites, who whipped and chained Black enslaved people who were celebrating the news on what they called “Jubilee Day.” Freedom from slavery did not mean freedom from white supremacy.
While there is some debate around just how widely celebrated Juneteenth is among Black people today, there is no debate about the reverence for the holiday and how important it is for the Black community. For us, the holiday signifies a time to come together for reflection, to celebrate our culture, resilience, liberation, and joy. And, even more broadly, it creates a space for reconciliation and commemoration. Growing up in my family, we often celebrated with hosting BBQs in the park. I can recall the smell of fireworks, hot links, and pork ribs on the grill. We sank our teeth into corn on the cob and enjoyed fresh watermelon as we spit the seeds back into the earth. Today, many people still celebrate in this way, and participate in parades and marches.
Over the last decade, through the efforts of those working at the grassroots level, cities and states across the country have passed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a “Special Day of Recognition.” And, just a few days ago, the U.S. House and Senate both passed bills to make Juneteenth a national holiday. While there is growing excitement and a hunger for education around this significant day, particularly following the civil uprisings the country saw in 2020, pushes for anti-lynching legislation, police reform, and voting rights have gone largely ignored—a critical reminder that the health, safety, and wellbeing of those most in need is what is needed most, yet it remains elusive.
Juneteenth 2020 saw a multicultural America protesting systemic racism, police violence, and the unequal health burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black-owned bookstores and racial-justice organizations reaped significant financial benefit during this time as many sought to learn a part of history almost entirely unknown to them. Large corporations even closed their doors in recognition and observance of the holiday. Since then, dozens of jurisdictions throughout the country have declared racism a public health emergency. Activists from coast to coast have pushed for violence prevention approaches that are less reliant on policing and more focused on improving community conditions.
Those who marched together last summer also pooled their money
. With Black people having some of the worst health disparities in the country, these resources secured food and educational programs for youth and supported struggling businesses. Community bail funds, which pay to free people held on bail and advocate for criminal justice reform, saw the largest uptick in donations. Organizations dedicated to structural racism also received well-deserved financial support. While these are big strides for America, pressing forward towards racial justice on issues of equity in health, safety, education, housing, economic security, and development remains as important as ever.
The story of Juneteenth’s origins makes clear why we need to work for our communities even on our days off. It took war and civil war amendments to make Juneteenth a reality. General Order #3
informed the people of Texas in 1865 that all enslaved people were now free… It read, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…
” We are still in the fight for “absolute equality” over a century later.
As people outside of the Black community begin to recognize Juneteenth—and may soon be given a day off from work in honor of the new national holiday—I hope we can build on the momentum and solidarity from last year recognizing the true history of Juneteenth to spark ongoing activism to achieve absolute health equity and racial justice.
In my work at Prevention Institute, I have the privilege of supporting public health agencies and grassroots organizations every day as they work for health equity and racial justice in their communities. Whether I’m at work or not, I will always celebrate Juneteenth as “a day on, not a day off,” until the sweet day when my community truly enjoys absolute equality.
La'Quana Williams is a program manager at Prevention Institute.
*Photo information: In Galveston, Texas, where Juneteenth was born, this new mural, entitled “Absolute Equality,” commemorates the event and its history. It was developed by the Juneteenth Legacy Project, which included the participation of several residents and organizations that are involved with the Communities of Care initiative, funded by the Hogg Foundation and coordinated by Prevention Institute.