As a kid, Ernest Owens always viewed Juneteenth as one of the few days a year it was okay to be unapologetically Black.
It has always been “a very Black holiday,” Owens says, that acknowledged the history that school textbooks often skipped, about the longer wait enslaved Texans had for their freedom.
Although many of those traditions have continued, Owens says he has watched the history begin to wear thin as the holiday stretched from its Texas roots across the country. Now a national holiday, Juneteenth is being lauded by people who didn’t know of its existence a few years ago.
“There was something uniquely different about Southern Black people’s experiences, specifically Texans,” he said. “In the last two years, that intimacy has been lost."
Juneteenth recognizes the day — June 19, 1865 — people enslaved in Galveston learned they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The next year marked the first Juneteenth celebration statewide, and it has been a cultural mainstay since then, with parades, cookouts, art shows, and games. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, in 1979.
“As an adult who is navigating the weird feeling of being a proud Texan, which is ingrained into anyone born here, it’s interesting,” Jasmine Langley, who lives in Dallas, says of traditional Juneteenth celebrations that blanket the state. “It always stirs those juxtaposing feelings of ‘I hate this racist, backwards state’ and ‘I can’t imagine living anywhere other than Texas.’”
Awareness of the traditional Texas holiday began to grow amid the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. President Biden signed a law last year making it a federal holiday.
In 2021, the number of states that gave public-sector employees the Friday before Juneteenth off doubled compared with the previous year, according to CNN. Schools such as Michigan State University and Boston University held their first Juneteenth celebrations, while campuses such as Ohio State University closed for the holiday. This year, the U.S. Post Office joined the list of government agencies closing on Monday in observance of Juneteenth.
Some celebrations have fallen into political territory. In St. George, Utah, the Washington County Republican Party is hosting its first Juneteenth celebration this year at the Dixie Convention Center. “We’ve had the opportunity to educate a lot of people and say, ‘Hey, we’re trying to reach across here. This isn’t about a woke holiday,’ ” said Lesa Sandberg, the group’s chair. “We’re not anti-Black people. We love Black people, we have shared common values with them, and we want to remind the world that we do.”
The group picked Amala Ekpunobi, who hosts a show for the conservative nonprofit PragerU, to be the keynote speaker. Last year, in a YouTube video titled “Exposing the TRICK of Juneteenth,” Ekpunobi said the holiday was used by liberals to further the idea that Black people were oppressed. “Juneteenth is being pushed because it perpetuates the very same narrative of things like critical race theory," she said. Ekpunobi did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Those who have celebrated Juneteenth for years worry the holiday is being co-opted.
Some companies have already been forced to retreat from their Juneteenth-related marketing.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis apologized after having to remove a menu item for its upcoming Juneteenth Jamboree: watermelon salad, which reinforced a racist stereotype that all Black Americans like watermelon. The museum is “currently reviewing how we may best convey these stories and traditions during this year’s Juneteenth celebration,” according to a statement.
Walmart debuted a red velvet- and cheesecake-flavored Juneteenth ice cream this year. Its carton was adorned in red, yellow and green — Pan-African colors. But the traditional Juneteenth flag, designed by National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation Founder Ben Haith in 1997, is red, white and blue to replicate the flags for the United States and the Lone Star State. The big-box store also released Juneteenth napkins with “It’s the Freedom for Me" written on them and sold a tank top with the words “Because my ancestors weren’t free in 1976″ modeled by a White woman.
Walmart apologized and said it was "reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
In trying to profit from Juneteenth, Walmart failed to realize that Black people aren’t a monolith, said Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. “It felt like an attempt to capture as much Blackness as possible, even if it was not rooted in cultural specificity,” he said.
Ahmad Islam and Sherman Wright, chief executive and chief operating officer respectively of advertising agency Ten35, said brands should already have strong relationships with their Black audiences before even considering Juneteenth messaging.
After George Floyd’s murder, many brands either felt obligated to respond or were "opportunistically looking for ways to start the dialogue and say something meaningful,” Islam said.
But “if you’re only showing up ... in June because of Black Music Month, and then Juneteenth, and in February because of Black History Month, then you’re off to a rough start,” Wright said. “In this day and age, brands will be called out for it.”
Morgan Malachi, the founder of the Tubman House Center for Reparative Justice, a social justice group she founded online, said she’s been disappointed that some organizations are missing important details about the holiday. She objected to the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade & Festival using the Pan-African red, green and black colors to advertise the event rather than the traditional Juneteenth flag colors.
“I have looked a lot into emancipation days for about two years now, and I’ve seen historical pictures,” she said. “Our people, we celebrate it using the American flag.”
Malachi said she will still attend the parade but will be handing out her own fliers that encourage Black Americans to remember Juneteenth’s purpose.
“We set the tone in how our holidays and how our culture is celebrated,” Malachi said. “Independence Hall is respected. That’s why it’s still there. The Liberty Bell is respected. ... I want Juneteenth and every Emancipation Day in this country to be respected in the same way,” she said.
Juneteenth traditionalists may have to make room for the holiday to take on new meaning.
April Columbus, 44, knew little about Juneteenth growing up in St. Bernard, La., but became more invested after her daughter’s dance team was invited to a Juneteenth parade in Atlanta five years ago. Columbus called the event “the most positive African American experience,” with all-Black vendors selling handmade goods, spots for authentic Caribbean food and soul food, and performances from Black singers, dancers and poets.
Learning about Juneteenth inspired her desire to start looking into her own local history. For the Juneteenth ceremony she has organized for St. Bernard Parish this year, she also plans to incorporate Louisiana history by placing a wreath on a local marker for unknown enslaved people. The parish is known in Louisiana for its brutal history of slavery, Columbus said, so confronting its traumatic history toward Black people has helped her community heal.
“You respect what came before, and you move on,” she said.
A lot of Black history and culture were lost at the hands of slavery, Columbus said, but that means Black people can create new traditions. Local Juneteenth commemorations are her way of doing that.
“They always say if you learn about your past, you won’t make the same mistakes,” she said. “We want to leave a positive legacy.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Morgan Malachi is not employed by the Tubman House Center for Reparative Justice, a social justice group she founded online.