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Holidays in America: Juneteenth

Juneteenth is short for June nineteenth. This day of celebration honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday in the US. Other names attached to the date have included Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day.

In June of 1865, the Civil War had been over for months, and it was more than two years earlier that the Emancipation Proclamation (which freed all enslaved people in Confederate states) had been signed by then President Abraham Lincoln. But in Texas, nothing had changed for slaves. It wasn’t until federal military troops arrived on the 18th and enforced the emancipation that slavery finally ended for them, and the roots of Emancipation Day, now Juneteenth, were laid.

Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1979. Currently, 47 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. There are also efforts to make it an official federal holiday; on June 15, 2021, the Senate approved a bill to make Juneteenth a legal public holiday. It’s likely that the bill will also be approved by the House of Representatives.

One of the most visible symbols of Juneteenth is the flag. Divided into red and blue, the flag has a white bursting star in the middle. The star in the middle represents Texas (where Juneteenth got its start) as well as the rest of the United States. The starburst around the center star symbolizes the birth of a new star and new beginnings. The curved border of the red and blue background represents a new horizon, and the red, white, and blue colors reflect the American flag, serving as a reminder that the former slaves and their descendants are Americans.

Juneteenth celebrations pay tribute to the legacy of character and determination, and acknowledge the ongoing struggles of African Americans. They often include parades, marches, prayers, the reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and food, often traditional soul food dishes. Collard greens, potato salad, macaroni & cheese, cornbread, peach cobbler, and banana pudding are all popular dishes.

But the real stars of the table are red foods, such as barbecue, watermelon, and red beverages. In part, the red symbolizes the blood of the millions of enslaved people who suffered and died. But the symbolism of the color red goes even deeper than that. In many West African countries, red is a symbol of strength and spirituality, as well as life and death. Red drinks have ties to two West African plants: the kola nut and hibiscus, both of which can be made into a reddish-colored tea.

You can read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation here. For more information, check out Juneteeth.com, or share some books with your children, such as Juneteenth for Mazie. This excellent story is about a girl who is frustrated at all the rules she has to follow. Her father tells her about her Great-great-great-grandpa Mose, who was an enslaved person, and the generations that followed him after learning of their freedom.

Two other good books about Juneteenth are The Story behind Juneteenth and All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom. You’ll find links to each below.

Though Juneteenth might not yet be as well known as some of the other summer holidays, it’s an important part of American history and a wonderful time of celebration.

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