Recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday a step in the right direction

Juneteenth was made an official federal holiday last year

Juneteenth has its own official flag, seen here during a 2021 celebration in Galveston, Texas. Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Celebrating Juneteenth as a federally recognized holiday shows great strides towards an understanding of a portion of Black history. The day marks the final abolishment of slavery and what that means for America’s history moving forward. However, most Black communities have celebrated Juneteenth since June 19, 1865. Since that day, we continue to commemorate that no one is free until we are all free!

Juneteenth will forever signify for me what it means to carry the torch of keeping the faith and having patience. During these tumultuous times, any one of us can be literally stripped of both. As a tour guide for the APEX Museum, I have the opportunity to educate people from all over the world about some of the most relevant and powerful pieces of our Black history. From this vantage point, I have seen hundreds of people go from being totally unknowledgeable to having a fuller understanding of the strength, tenacity and persistence of our people who were oppressed for more than 400 years. I can easily tell by many of their facial expressions the complete mindset change that occurs in just one visit.

June 19, 1865, was the day that 250,000 slaves in the state of Texas were finally freed. On that date, General Order No. 3 was announced by Union General Gordon Granger which mandated federal troops to release all enslaved people. This was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation “enforced” by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.

Two theories sparked my interest while learning the story of Juneteenth:

Some messengers were allegedly shot and killed by people who were opposed to slaves being free. These murderers would take the same routes as the messengers and kill them.

Another theory asserts that the news was deliberately withheld because some federal troops waited for slave owners to get in one last cotton harvest before heading to Texas and delivering the news.

Why would this have to be when these slaves should have already been freed in 1863? This was the question I asked myself because this newfound information was very questionable. I now know the answer. There is evidence which backs up the second theory I stated above. It is a known fact that slaveholders throughout the South would relocate their human “property” to Texas since the Union Troops were advancing and the Confederacy was clearly losing during this time of the Civil War, in hopes to preserve slavery for as long as possible. Hence, they were deliberately holding free people in bondage.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Juneteenth being recognized as a federal holiday is a marvelous step in the right direction. It is more than timely to be able to celebrate it in such grandeur among Black families and communities at large. This deepens the connection between us and those brave and faithful souls of our past.

There is a rare illustration by Thomas Nast published in the Cincinnati Gazette called “Patience on a Monument.” The illustration depicts a freed man sitting on top of a monument that lists the evils perpetrated against Black people. A carving of a dead woman and children lie at the bottom of the monument, while violence and fires rage in the background. This illustration stood out to me because it shows the true essence of what Juneteenth signifies, which is how these people kept the faith, the patience and perseverance all while being abused and left in the dark of the vital information which would free them.

Juneteenth was not always celebrated on June 19 but was instead celebrated on a day those free people knew as Emancipation Day. This annual celebration started the following year on Jan. 1, 1866. It was based on the understanding that President Lincoln enforced the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, so why not honor it and call it Emancipation Day? People later began to celebrate Juneteenth on June 19 because that was the actual day that the General Orders were read. Juneteenth had always been a private celebration in Texas until recently it was recognized as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden.

As we continue to celebrate Juneteenth moving forward, we should understand the significance of the red dye foods associated with the holiday and why they are of significance.

Red represents the precious, innocent blood that was shed on the pathway to freedom. Also, in West African cultures red is a symbol of life and death, spirituality, and strength. It is considered to be a cultural legacy along with these people’s distinct appreciation of okra, beans, melons and many other foods (some red, some not) that were brought across the Atlantic Ocean during what I know as Maafa. Maafa is a Swahili term that means “great and terrible tragedy.” Simply because that is exactly what happened to these people. It is more widely known as the Middle Passage or the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Juneteenth has its own flag to represent the holiday. The flag deliberately consists of the colors red, white, and blue with one star in the middle, similar to the United States flag. The flag intentionally resembles the U.S. flag to represent both the Lone Star State (Texas) and the freedom of all enslaved people from all 50 states and their descendants thereafter.

Finally, please remember that Juneteenth is not just another day off. Rather, it is a day where we celebrate and honor our ancestors for their and our freedom on this exact day 157 years later.

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Kyler Winston-Kendricks

Kyler Winston-Kendricks is a Georgia State University sophomore who is studying history and who is an intern and tour guide at the APEX Museum in downtown Atlanta, which is a museum of history presented from the Black perspective.