Juneteenth: a celebration of freedom, a call to action

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Juneteenth, variously known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee day or Liberation Day, is a holiday commemorating the June 19, 1865, announcement in Galveston, Texas of the emancipation of all chattel slaves following the end of the Civil War.

The oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth — a portmanteau of June and nineteenth — is sometimes referred to as Independence Day for Blacks or America’s second Independence Day.

Appropriately, in 1980 Texas became the first state in the U.S. to declare Juneteenth a state holiday. Juneteenth was designated as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, by unanimous vote of the Senate and an overwhelming majority of Congress, making it the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a holiday in 1983.

Dr. Quintard Taylor

The distinguished UW historian Dr. Quintard Taylor, creator of BlackPast.org, describes the origins and evolution of the Juneteenth holiday since 1965 in the article Juneteenth: The Growth of an African American Holiday.

The Washington state legislature officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 2021. Read this opinion piece by LaNesha DeBardelaben, director of the Northwest African American Museum, on our state’s newest official holiday.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished slavery in states rebelling against the Union more than two years earlier, in January 1863, widespread knowledge and implementation of the proclamation was slow to spread across many southern states. Historians have various theories for why this is, with most agreeing that slave owners’ disingenuity played a part.

However, while official commemoration of Juneteenth offers the opportunity to joyfully reflect on and communally celebrate the progress made toward racial equality, the historic impact of slavery in the United States continues to shape our communities and our lives.

“[Juneteenth] is a way of acknowledging that we can embrace those parts of our society that embody our highest aspirations for equity, justice and inclusion, while also continuing to work for change that is urgently needed,” wrote UW President Ana Mari Cauce in 2023.

Learn more about Juneteenth

One of the best ways to learn more about Juneteenth and the Black experience is through the myriad pages of BlackPast.org, the astoundingly informative site created by Dr. Taylor that charts the history of African Americans and more than a billion people of African ancestry around the world.

In Juneteenth: A Primer, author Mitchell S. Jackson provides compelling historical context for Juneteenth celebrations.

Read How to properly celebrate Juneteenth in the age of commercialization for commentary from NPR about the increasing commodification of what used to be a small, localized observance.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a wealth of information about the history and significance of Juneteenth. Start here:

Those looking for book choices, including books for kids, may find the following curated lists helpful:

For people who hold multiple marginalized identities, Black and LGBTQ: Approaching Intersectional Conversations can help guide discussions exploring the layers of different lived experiences.

How to celebrate Juneteenth

Historically, Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas with family gatherings and reunions, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation or sermons, singing and small festivals. People dressed up in their finery as a nod to the lack of nice — or any — clothing available to the enslaved.

The red, white and blue Juneteenth flag (pictured below) was created in 1997 specifically to represent the holiday. In 2007, the date of the first Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) was added to the flag. The colors selected were intentionally chosen to demonstrate that formerly enslaved people and their descendants are free Americans, too.

Red foods, such as red soda, punch, hibiscus tea, red velvet cake, red beans and rice, hot sauce, strawberry and watermelon are traditional on the holiday both to acknowledge the bloodshed of slaves and because many of the more common foods for the enslaved were white, green or brown–meaning traditional red foods were seen as exciting, celebratory treats.

For main dishes, barbecue was and remains the order of the day. Historically across Texas, people roasted whole pigs, cows or goats over open pits in a manner practiced traditionally in Africa. Nowadays, fish fries, crab boils and seasoned shrimp are also popular — hearkening back to coastal Southern Black communities whose Juneteenth meals were comprised mostly of seafood.

While still largely a day for family — particularly in more rural areas — many people celebrate Juneteenth with a trip to a ball game, rodeo, music festival or parade.

A great way to celebrate and support Black culture and community on Juneteenth or any day is to eat, drink or shop at local Black-owned businesses. Check out this directory of businesses from the Seattle Urban League and this roster of restaurants, bars and cafes from Seattle Met.

Local observances

The Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) will celebrate Juneteenth from June 15 to June 19 with its annual skate party, Father’s Day celebration and a full slate of family activities (plus free admission) on Juneteenth proper, when you can experience current exhibits on the late UW professor and artist Jacob Lawrence, “Freedom of Expression” from Black artists, “Interrupting Privilege” and “Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See.”

Songs of Black Folks: Music of Resistance and Hope takes the stage at the Paramount Theatre on June 16.

REVIVAL Juneteenth Market Pop-up takes over Midtown Square Plaza on June 16.

Washington State Parks offer free admission for recreation on Juneteenth.

Summer of Soul Juneteenth celebration brings music and community to Jimi Hendrix Park on June 19.

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute presents “We’re Free Now,” a celebration of Black genius on June 19.

Juneteenth: A Road to Economic Freedom, the “largest Juneteenth celebration in Washington state,” takes place in Tacoma’s Stewart Heights Park on June 19.

Washington State History Museum presents original works by youth writers and adults from the African American Writers’ Alliance plus interactive mural making on June 20.

8th Annual Juneteenth Celebration brings family friendly entertainment, soul food, arts and crafts to Othello Park on June 22.

Atlantic Street Center celebrates Juneteenth with family-friendly fun, welcoming community organizations, Black businesses and food vendors and dynamic performances at Rainier Beach Community Center on June 22.

Festival Sundiata presents Black Arts Fest in partnership with Sundiata African American Cultural Association (SAACA) in the Seattle Center Armory and Mural Amphitheatre on August 23-25.


Support the Black community

Inspired to do more? Consider making a one-time gift or setting up monthly payroll deduction through the UW Combined Fund Drive to one of many member organizations actively working to remove systemic barriers to Black opportunity and support communities in which Black voices and lives matter.


Article originated by Nicole Reeve-Parker.

One Thought on “Juneteenth: a celebration of freedom, a call to action”

On June 12, 2024 at 8:12 AM, Pamela said:

Thanks for having this page. A lot of people still do not understand Juneteenth. It is an important part of American history that some would like to forget. And it is a reason to celebrate that my ancestors prevailed over horrible circumstances to become a vibrant and strong people.

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