Written by Pierce Lydon • June 1, 2023
Each year on June 19th is a holiday called Juneteenth, whose name comes from the combination of the month “June” and the day “nineteenth.” Beginning in 2021, Juneteenth became a public holiday. However, many communities have been celebrating Juneteenth for over 150 years. But what is Juneteenth? And how can you celebrate it this year?
The origins of the Juneteenth holiday are the events that occurred on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. To understand what led to massive celebrations of freedom on this particular day, you have to look back a few years to New Year's Day in 1863. The president, Abraham Lincoln, issued a document that has incredible significance in the course of American history. This document was called the Emancipation Proclamation and it freed all enslaved people located in states that were a part of the Confederacy, mostly states in the south.
While the Emancipation Proclamation made it illegal for slavery in these states, this law could only be enforced where there were Union troops present. Without fast methods of communication during that time period, laws needed to be brought to communities by foot or horseback — which meant that remote regions of the Confederate states would only become aware of the president’s news coming via messenger.
On June 19, 1865, Union troops finally arrived in remote Galveston Bay and announced that all enslaved people were now free. They declared this freedom by executive decree, much to the joy of over 250,000 enslaved people living in Texas, who began referring to this day as Juneteenth.
After the original Juneteenth, communities in Texas and across the southern states celebrated freedom. With migration of people to the country’s northern major cities, Juneteenth celebrations spread. While there was a decline of Juneteenth events throughout the Jim Crow era, they began to revive throughout the 1960-1980s.
With over 150 years of history, Juneteenth traditions have grown from small church gatherings to large community events, with some contemporary events drawing thousands of people. Juneteenth isn’t simply a holiday to celebrate the freedom of enslaved people, it’s also a celebration of the strength and resilience of African Americans and the descendants of slaves.
One of the most important traditions of Juneteenth is the menu. Food festivals have always been a central component to Juneteenth celebrations, with delicious summer foods — in fact, Juneteenth is often compared to the Fourth of July, as it’s considered America’s second Independence Day. Foods red in color are seen as traditional for Juneteenth, as red symbolizes spiritual power, particularly the spiritual power brought across the Atlantic Ocean. Many people serve red beverages, including strawberry lemonade, punch, and soda. Other menu highlights include cornbread, catfish, delicious sides like collard greens, and, of course, all types of pies for dessert.
Music is also a key component to Juneteenth celebrations, as the atmosphere tends to be joyful and lively. Jazz music is a popular genre, though any music that gets people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor is welcome! There might also be games, raffles, and other activities to keep the good vibes free flowing.
Other ways to celebrate Juneteenth include prayer or religious services, speeches, educational events, picnics, and advocacy events like marches.
There are many excellent resources to turn to if you want to learn more about Juneteenth. There are great videos that explain the holiday, including “What is Juneteenth? Watch a Juneteenth Cartoon (Fun Facts about Juneteenth).” The Smithsonian puts out a Juneteenth reading list for those who are looking for new books to read in their book clubs or with their friends. The National Museum of African American and Culture also published a resource for children about understanding and celebrating Juneteenth, which is written in simple language with child-friendly concepts. Other organizations have put together interactive maps about Juneteenth or recipe collections.
However you decide to celebrate Juneteenth this year, be sure to have plenty of delicious food ready to maintain the spirit of the event. Need help with catering? CaterCow can provide tasty, convenient meals for your office party. While we don’t have a specific filter for “red foods,” we can help you find festive and delicious options for your Juneteenth event. :)