What is Juneteenth? Here’s what to know about the holiday and why it’s celebrated

The Juneteenth holiday is set to take place this week, marking its fourth year as a federal holiday in the U.S., but the celebrations are far from new.

For more than 150 years, the June 19 holiday has been an important observance to many Black communities across the country.

Since it was designated a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth has become more universally recognized beyond Black America. Many people get the day off work or school, and there are a plethora of street festivals, fairs, concerts and other events.

For beginners and those brushing up history, here are some answers:

What is Juneteenth and how is it celebrated?

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out they had been freed — after the end of the Civil War, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth festivities are rooted in cookouts and large gatherings.

In the first years after the end of the Civil War, outdoor spaces allowed for large, raucous reunions among formerly enslaved family, many of whom had been separated. The gatherings were especially revolutionary because they were free of restrictive measures, known as “Black Codes,” enforced in Confederate states, controlling whether liberated slaves could vote, buy property, gather for worship and other aspects of daily life.

Others may choose to treat Juneteenth as a day of rest and remembrance. That can mean doing community service, attending an education panel or taking time off.

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The important thing is to make people feel they have options on how to observe the occasion, said Dr. David Anderson, a Black pastor and CEO of Gracism Global, a consulting firm helping leaders navigate conversations bridging divides across race and culture.

“Just like the Martin Luther King holiday, we say it’s a day of service and a lot of people will do things. There are a lot of other people who are just ‘I appreciate Dr. King, I’ll watch what’s on the television, and I’m gonna rest,’” Anderson said. “I don’t want to make people feel guilty about that. What I want to do is give everyday people a choice.”

When did Juneteenth become a national holiday?

President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021. That same year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Illinois’ law to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

“I’m pleased to see the federal government join Illinois in recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday, offering all Americans a day to reflect on the national shame of slavery and the work we must do to dismantle systemic racism,” Pritzker said in a statement. “Most importantly, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Black Americans who will celebrate Juneteenth as a milestone in their fight for every ounce of the freedom that is their God-given right – and continue with them in that fight.”

Are there special foods for Juneteenth?

Aside from barbecue, the color red has been a through line for Juneteenth food for generations. Red symbolizes the bloodshed and sacrifice of enslaved ancestors. A Juneteenth menu might incorporate items like barbecued ribs or other red meat, watermelon and red velvet cake. Drinks like fruit punch and red Kool-Aid may make an appearance at the table.

Does how you celebrate Juneteenth matter if you aren’t Black?

Dr. Karida Brown, a sociology professor at Emory University whose research focuses on race, said there’s no reason to feel awkward about wanting to recognize Juneteenth because you have no personal ties or you’re not Black. In fact, embrace it.

“I would reframe that and challenge my non-Black folks who want to lean into Juneteenth and celebrate,” Brown said. “It absolutely is your history. It absolutely is a part of your experience. … Isn’t this all of our history? The good, the bad, the ugly, the story of emancipation and freedom for for your Black brothers and sisters under the Constitution of the law.”

If you want to bring some authenticity to your recognition of Juneteenth, educate yourself. Attending a street festival or patronizing a Black-owned business is a good start.

If you’re struggling with how to “ethically” mark the day, Brown also suggested expanding your knowledge of why the holiday matters so much. That can be through reading, attending an event or going to an African American history museum if there’s one nearby.

“Have that full human experience of seeing yourself in and through the eyes of others, even if that’s not your own lived experience,” she said. “That is a radical human act that is awesome and should be encouraged and celebrated.”

What else is Juneteenth known as?

Over the decades, Juneteenth has also been called Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Black Fourth of July and second Independence Day among others.

“Because 1776, Fourth of July, where we’re celebrating freedom and liberty and all of that, that did not include my descendants,” Brown said. “Black people in America were still enslaved. So that that holiday always comes with a bittersweet tinge to it.”

How to greet people on Juneteenth

It’s typical to wish people a “Happy Juneteenth” or “Happy Teenth,” said Freeman, the comedian.

“You know how at Christmas people will say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other and not even know each other? You can get a ‘Merry Christmas’ from everybody. This is the same way,” Freeman said.

No matter what race you are, you will “absolutely” elicit a smile if you utter either greeting, he said.

“I believe that a non-Black person who celebrates Juneteenth … it’s their one time to have a voice, to participate.”

What’s open and closed on Juneteenth?

The holiday, set for June 19, will lead to closures of many facilities, while others will remain unaffected.

Mail Service

Juneteenth is included in holidays observed by the United States Postal Service, meaning that no mail delivery will occur and all post offices will be closed.

Banks

Banks that observe federal holidays, including Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and others, will be closed for the day on June 19.

State, Federal Buildings

All state and federal facilities, including Department of Motor Vehicles offices and courthouses, will be closed for the holiday.

Trash Service

Most communities observe federal holidays for trash pickup, including the city of Chicago. According to the city’s website, there will be no residential trash pickup on June 19, but there will be recycling service available in select areas.

More information can be found on the city’s website.

Schools

Chicago Public Schools locations and offices will be closed in observance of the holiday. No summer programming will be held on that date, according to officials.

Public schools that have summer classes will also be closed on the holiday, though private schools may choose to be open. Be sure to check your district’s website for more information.

Retail Stores

Most retailers are open for Juneteenth, but some may have abbreviated hours. Shoppers are encouraged to check the websites of their favorite stores to see if their hours on the holiday.

Flags

In addition, flags will fly at half-staff across Illinois from sunrise on June 19 to sunset on June 20.

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