Kenneth Timmons, who works for a federal government agency in Houston, said the first thing he usually does before every Juneteenth is take the day off work. Mr. Timmons usually invites friends over to cook and eat together.
“My co-workers know why I’m off, I tell them I don’t work Juneteenth,” Mr. Timmons, 47, said. “I don’t work on my Independence Day.”
Born and raised in Lufkin, Texas, a town more than 100 miles northeast of Houston, Mr. Timmons remembers attending community Juneteenth celebrations as a child, where he would watch rodeo shows, pageants, eat barbecue and participate in calf chasing contests.
“Even though the United States celebrates July 4 as their independence, we were still considered slaves,” said Mr. Timmons. “So for us, that is the day that our ancestors were finally released from servitude and slavery and could escape the South.”
Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day — has been a tradition in the United States for more than 150 years. The holiday finds its roots in Texas, where enslaved African-Americans in the city of Galveston were finally informed of their freedom on June 19, 1865, about two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Participation in Juneteenth celebrations grew throughout the years as descendants continued traditions in Texas and, as African-Americans in the South migrated across the country, Juneteenth celebrations began appearing in different cities.
There has been a surge of attention on the holiday in recent weeks, as the protest movement against police brutality and structural racism toward black Americans gains momentum. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York signed an executive order on Wednesday making Juneteenth a holiday for state employees, and companies from Twitter to Target to Nike are observing the day as a holiday or as a day of service. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia officially commemorate or observe Juneteenth; Texas, which made it a state holiday in 1980, was first to do so.
What exactly does a Juneteenth celebration look like?
For some, it’s eating barbecue, shooting fireworks, gathering at a cookout and sipping on red drinks, a tradition that symbolizes perseverance and honor the blood that was shed by African-Americans. For others, it’s shopping only at black-owned businesses, sharing history or resting at home. This year, some will gather online for live video chats, which has become a norm in the new coronavirus pandemic.
If you ask Attica Locke, a Houston-born, Los Angeles-based author and television writer, she’d tell you that she’s the child of the single greatest smoker in all of Texas history — her father. His grilled meats were central to her family’s Juneteenth.
Ms. Locke said they would usually join community celebrations at Hermann Park or MacGregor Park in Houston, where dozens of people would grab tables and party to music — the Commodores, Maze, Johnnie Taylor.
“It was literally just a feeling of life and closeness and love,” Ms. Locke, 46, said. “I don’t remember people articulating, ‘Hey, this is Freedom Day.’ The freedom was simply expressed in the right to be with people that you love.”
She also stressed the significance of parks as a gathering place for African-Americans and why many black people can be deeply affected by racist incidents there, like the Central Park altercation last month when a white woman called the police on a black man who was bird watching and asked her to leash her dog.
“There’s something about black folks and parks for celebration,” she said. “Being outdoors together and in parks is a big part of black culture. And that’s why it is so hurtful and offensive when people try to police that behavior.”
Michael Hurd, 71, the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, spent years studying black history. But while growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, he had no serious knowledge about the holiday. He simply knew Juneteenth as “the picnic,” with barbecue, fried chicken, pies and “red soda water.”
Mr. Hurd plans to spend this Juneteenth reflecting on black history in the U.S. and the recent killings of unarmed black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
“There’ve been a lot of people who’ve suffered tremendously for our survival,” he said. “And that’s what I think about — and given the current events and where our country is now, I’m going to think about it a lot more.”
For some African-Americans, this year’s Juneteenth is difficult to celebrate, as black people are still fighting for equal rights in labor, health care, housing, education and more. A more widespread recognition of the holiday and the spread of approved time off from work is not enough.
“Until corporate leadership looks different, until there are actual policies that are created in this country to protect the marginalized and that uplift the marginalized voices,” said Lazarus Lynch, 26, “I’m not interested in the quick service solutions.”
Mr. Lynch, an artist, chef and author in the New York City borough of Queens, said that while he appreciates the history and believes in honoring the ancestors that came before him, he said it’s complicated, because black people are not “afforded the luxury” of taking a break from fighting for justice.
“It’s also a day that is deeply painful for me because I realize that we’re still in this fight,” said Mr. Lynch. “There are still so many systemic oppressions that black people face.”
Protecting black joy and celebrations today
The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected black people; social distancing guidelines make gathering for Juneteenth tricky. Although many cities are slowly reopening and experts say gathering outdoors isn’t significantly risky, large crowds of people packed close will increase risk.
Ms. Locke plans to spend this year’s Juneteenth at home with her husband and 13-year-old daughter, “celebrating blackness all day” with music and online video calls with family.
“The way our freedom is celebrated is by one of the greatest things that was robbed from us, which was connection,” Ms. Locke said. “The big struggle with this Juneteenth is that lack of connection.”
Mr. Lynch said he planned to celebrate Juneteenth by grilling jerk chicken at small barbecue with friends, where the conversations and atmosphere “will be different.”
“It’s more than celebrating the holiday,” Mr. Lynch said. “It’s celebrating life and the existence of life. And for me, the way that I’m honoring this Juneteenth is to honor those whose lives were lost.”
For their first real Juneteenth celebration, Taina Spicer, 26, and her girlfriend, Mikaela Berry, 24, are going to spend it resting and also joining a Harlem Renaissance-themed online poetry reading, hosted by Ms. Spicer’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Ms. Spicer, a visual artist based in New Jersey, said this allows them to take a break from their fight against injustices and focus on self-preservation.
“Your rest and recovery and celebration is revolutionary in itself, because that is what people don’t want you to do,” Ms. Spicer said. “They want you to be tired. They want you to be beaten down.”
According to Ms. Berry, a social justice worker who grew up in Los Angeles but has family roots in Texas, celebrating Juneteenth is important because being able to exist as “black queer women” happened with the help of their ancestors.
“Like holding her hand in public is like what my ancestors would have wanted,” she said, “because that’s me being happy in my unapologetic true self.”
In Illinois, this Juneteenth will be a departure for Deborah Birmingham-Myers, who started celebrating the holiday with her family 20 years ago. This will be the first that she’ll spend without her husband, Mark Myers, who died last fall. He was 58.
“It’s going to feel really different because Juneteenth was special for my husband,” said Ms. Birmingham-Myers, who is a teacher from Glenwood, a suburb of Chicago. “My husband was the life of the party. He enjoyed life. He lived life to the fullest. He was a jokester. He could sing. He could dance. He could cook.”
For her, there’s no Juneteenth without education, so along with barbecue, line dancing and country music, Juneteenth trivia games are an important part of their family tradition.
One of her daughters, Melody Myers, 26, said that her father had a big presence at their Juneteenth celebrations and she appreciates that she was taught from a very young age to be proud of her culture and blackness.
“Doing that was really helpful,” said Ms. Myers, who is based in New York City. “A lot of people are talking about it and so now I’m like, ‘Oh, I was hip to that, 20-something years ago.’ It was something that we always looked forward to.”
“Black people are the full spectrum of humanity. And you see that there,” said Liara Tamani, a Houston-based writer and author. She grew up in Houston and remembers spending Juneteenth in Hermann Park or Emancipation Park, which was purchased in 1872 specifically for Juneteenth celebrations. “You see black people throwing Frisbees. Black people playing cards. Black people kissing, black people reading poetry to each other.”
Ms. Tamani, 43, said she believes it’s important to celebrate all parts of black humanity.
“Just as hard as we are working to fight for our equality,” said Ms. Tamani, “we at the same time need to be celebrating ourselves. And showing people all there is to celebrate.”