Understanding the significance of Juneteenth
As a federal holiday, this day observes the promise of freedom for all people in the United States. It is also a day to examine the sociological constructs—like the concept of “race”—that fuel the structural inequalities that Black Americans and many Latinos still endure today.
By Viviana López-Green, Senior Director, Racial Equity Initiative, UnidosUS
WHAT IS JUNETEENTH?
Juneteenth, also known as “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day,” commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States of America. Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the news of freedom arrived slowly for many across the country. More than two years later, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, informing all enslaved people that they were free. Black communities in Texas started to gather each June 19th to celebrate the day with prayer services, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories, food, dances, and red soda—some have linked the red symbolism to the blood shed through the institution of slavery, but it is also tied to special drinks served in West Africa.
As we all know, the official abolition of slavery did not bring equality. The devastating effects of segregation were first addressed almost 90 years later by the Civil Rights Movement, and it was during those years that Juneteenth started to grow in importance. Texas adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, and on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making this historical event the eleventh federal holiday in the nation.
WHY DO WE HONOR JUNETEENTH?
As many as one-quarter of Latinxs in the United States identify themselves as Afro-Latinx, and their ancestors were enslaved in the United States as well as in Latin America.
The economic and social institution of slavery began in Latin America even before it started in the United States. The first enslaved people of African origin were forcibly brought by European colonizers in the 16th century. Haiti was the first nation to abolish the practice of slavery, a feat it won through a successful, 13-year revolt against its French colonizers that began in 1793 and established Haiti as the world’s first Black republic in 1804. From that point on, each country in the Americas officially abolished slavery—after winning their independence—up through the second half of the 19th century.
It is important to note that the United States was one of the last nations to abolish slavery in the Americas, not doing so until 1865. Throughout that time, many enslaved people were also forcibly brought from the Caribbean and South America to the United States. The Black community was perceived as one homogeneous group then, with no distinctions between Afro-Latinxs and African Americans.
Afro-Latinxs have endured many of the same injustices that African Americans have endured in this country through violent institutions like slavery. As a federal holiday, this day complements the national celebration of Independence Day, since it observes the completion of the promise of freedom for all people in the United States. It is also a day to examine the sociological constructs—like the concept of “race”—that fuel the structural inequalities that many Latinos endure until this day.
Juneteenth is an opportunity for all people in this country to observe, recognize, and reflect on the history and contributions of the Black experience in the United States and Latin America. Let’s learn and come together! Acknowledgment of the violent history of the United States can inform solutions to present and future problems and can empower communities with new narratives. The list below is a place to start, including resources to expand what you know about the historical events related to this federal holiday and about Black culture in the United States and Latin America.
Absolute Equality: A Mural at the Birthplace of Juneteenth
The Juneteenth Legacy Project seeks to further elevate the history of June 19th as a central moment in United States history, while also supporting activist and educator Opal Lee in her campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. In 2021, the project reimagined public spaces and unveiled a 5,000-square-foot art mural that overlooks the exact site where Granger issued General Order No. 3 in the city of Galveston, TX. This work, painted by the artist Reginald Adams, depicts the historical figures Estevanico (the first African to explore North America, in the 1500s), Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Gen. Gordon Granger surrounded by local landmarks. Projects like this are important because they help to tell the American story and, as its own creator Reginald Adams puts it, “they help to open up new doorways for social dialogue regarding social justice and racial equity.”
Juneteenth Jamboree is a local public television program presented by Austin PBS. The series is a wonderful collection of online episodes that explore the history of the holiday and celebrate Black culture and art. PBS also offers Black Culture Connection, an enlightening, entertaining, and comprehensive list of their available programming about the Black experience.
NPR – Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation
Listen to NPR’s staff members read the Emancipation Proclamation in celebration of the June 19th holiday and follow along with the included text.
Why All Americans Should Honor Juneteenth
“Juneteenth is a deeply emotional moment for enslaved people,” says historian Karlos K. Hill of the University of Oklahoma in this short but insightful video prepared for the news website Vox. The narration and images help the audiences to see all the ways slavery still shapes this country and explains why it is important for all Americans to commemorate Juneteenth.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture—Online Collection
Images of objects from the NMAAHC collection are now available to view, download, and share through a Creative Commons license. You can browse objects by topic, date/era, name, object type, and place.
This classic concert film was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. In it, the one and only Aretha Franklin interprets hymns like Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over” and John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” with all the force of her otherworldly voice. The spiritual experience brings people in the audience to tears and serves as a reminder of how gospel music is intimately connected to the Black experience in America.
This 2019 Emmy Award-nominated film documents Beyoncé’s outstanding performance at the 2018 Coachella music festival. According to The New Yorker, the film is “an education in Black expression,” and Variety called it Beyoncé’s “ode to the Black college experience.”
Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations
The way we cook and gather around food is one of the most relevant practices in any culture, and these practices often reflect what moments a culture upholds and values. Watermelon and Red Birds is the very first book that specifically celebrates Juneteenth, written by food writer and author Nicole A. Taylor, and it collects recipes from her own experience observing the holiday throughout the years.
From renowned Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this four-part series aired in 2014. As with his book under the same title, in the series Black in Latin America Professor Gates examines the influence of millions of people of African descent on the history and vibrant cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Library of Congress Digital Collections
- Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938
BOOKS & ARTICLES
For books, articles, and other resources, start with UnidosUS content that has honored Juneteenth in previous years, along with other informative resources on Afro-Latinos. Continue with these reads for a better understanding of Juneteenth, slavery, and Black history:
- The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- Stony the Road and The Black Church by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
- The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
- “African American Spirituals,” an article from The Library of Congress
UNIDOS US CONTENT
MULTIMEDIA REPORT: UnidosUS’s Afro-Latinx Líderes Avanzando Fellows Tackle Policy
This past year, UnidosUS launched its first-ever Afro-Latinx Líderes Avanzando Fellowship. The program is geared to first-generation students pursuing their undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degrees and recent college graduates who identify as Afro-Latinx, and who are passionate about racial equity and making meaningful change in their campus community, workplace, and beyond.
UnidosUS ALAS II: Welcoming AfroLatinx Youth Toolkit
ALAS II: Welcoming AfroLatinx Youth is an UnidosUS toolkit for youth-serving programs. It includes facts about AfroLatinx history, activities supporting youth who are learning about their AfroLatinx identities, and resources for youth interested in AfroLatinx issues.
- Resources to honor and celebrate Juneteenth
- How Juneteenth Helps Me Reflect on My Afro-Latinx Experience on My Afro-Latinx Experience
- ALAS II: Welcoming AfroLatinx Youth
- Afro-Latinidad: The Celebration of a Multifaceted Identity
- Here’s How UnidosUS Is Exploring the Intersection of the Black and Latinx Experience
- Celebrate Afro-Latino Voices with the UnidosUS Reading List
- Afro-Latinos Are Part of the American Story