Ashlei Richardson, 32, of Arkansas, was among dozens lined up outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Friday afternoon. Amid conservative backlash toward “critical race theory,” the academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, Richardson said she was excited to bring her four children, ages 1 to 16, to the museum.
“We’re hoping that our children are exposed to the culture, to see more of our culture,” she said. “They don’t teach this stuff in the history books. They talk about American history but not African American history.”
“Which is American history,” her husband, Michael Richardson, 37, chimed in.
The Richardsons, who work for the Air Force Reserve, were already on vacation when Juneteenth — which combines the words June and nineteenth — was declared a national holiday. Like many others in line at the museum, they thought federal officials should have acted years earlier to mark the date, June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger stepped onto a balcony in Galveston, Tex. — two months after the Civil War had ended — and announced that more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state were free.
“It was long overdue,” said Octavia Nash, 39. She typically celebrates Juneteenth by bringing her family together for a barbecue, but this year she decided to visit the museum on the National Mall with her family.
“We have a dark, ugly history,” Nash said. “And I think by holding people accountable, and also just preserving our legacy, that helps us move forward in this fight for justice.”
Not far away, at the bottom of the steps leading to the Lincoln Memorial, Milton Kendall, 63, snapped a photo of a plane flying overhead. Growing up in the Florida Panhandle, Kendall used to celebrate Juneteenth with big family picnics, he said. He had not really commemorated the holiday since leaving home.
“It was like it died,” he said.
During racial justice protests in Washington last year, Kendall said, he felt at points like history was repeating itself, like he had heard the same calls for equality before. But knowing that Juneteenth was now a national holiday felt significant.
“People are trying to change,” he said. “They’re trying to educate.”
Ben Bresee, 43, of Petworth, felt drawn to the memorial, too.
“If I’m going to be on the Mall on Juneteenth, I’m going to go to the Lincoln Memorial,” he said, holding his son Sidney, who is almost 2. Bresee, an architectural engineer, said he saw Juneteenth as a fundamental celebration of freedom in America, especially freedom from slavery.
“It’s about darn time,” he said about the holiday being federally recognized. “It’s about darn time.”
To mark the new holiday, Lisa and Kendal Roberts planned a day trip to D.C. from their home in Clarksburg, Md. After visiting a Black-owned coffee shop, they made a stop at Black Lives Matter Plaza, the street opposite the White House where thousands gathered over weeks and months last year to protest racial injustice.
“You know this time last year, with what we were all hearing with the death of George Floyd and a year later, who would’ve imagined we would’ve been celebrating a federal holiday,” Lisa Roberts, 49, said.
“Something as big as slavery and emancipation, to have 2021 be the first time we truly recognize it as a government is a big deal,” said her husband, who is 54. “Like, I can imagine next year, as we walk up to the date, there will be events and education going on. So this begins to kind of pay respect to one of those things of our country.”
Lauryn Burnett, 30, was more cynical about the future of Juneteenth.
“There’s going to be themed parties where you have fried chicken and watermelon, and it’s just going to be something that’s appropriated,” she said, standing near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall.
A stay-at-home mother from Prince William County, Burnett spent the day pushing her 10-month-old son in a stroller around the monuments with a friend — a plan they had made well before the new federal holiday was announced. Holidays in the United States have a tendency to become “something for consumerism,” she said, and she hoped that would not happen with Juneteenth.
“Celebrating Juneteenth is just being out and being Black and being free,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get this day off for all these years to celebrate together but for nothing specific. It’s just being.”
Britanny Smith, 34, recently started a new job, and her employer counted Juneteenth as a holiday even before this week’s federal government designation. She traveled from Texas to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture with her uncle William Guthrie, 62.
“I’m still kind of shocked. It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Smith said of President Biden and Congress making the holiday a federal one. “I’m just hoping with all the movements and everything that’s been going on that people’s eyes are starting to open up a little bit, to see what’s been in front of their faces all this time.”
When Arthur Hale, 51, learned he would have Friday off from his job at the Department of Homeland Security, he decided to revisit the Emancipation Memorial, a few blocks from where he lived.
He had walked past the bronze monument hundreds of times on his daily strolls around Lincoln Park, which is in a neighborhood on Capitol Hill, but had never really stopped to examine it.
Hale said he had always found the memorial — which shows Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation as an African American man in a loincloth kneels at his feet — a “little cringey.” In that way, he shares the concerns of protesters who argued last year that the memorial — designed by an all-White committee but paid for by African Americans, including many former Union soldiers and those who had been enslaved — is demeaning to African Americans. For months, the statue was cordoned off by metal fences and guarded by police as critics called for its removal.
On Friday, however, there was little trace of the controversy. As grandparents chased after toddlers and dogs chased after tennis balls, Hale stood inches away from the monument, quietly reading the plaque.
Learning that it was commissioned and paid for by Black people changed his perspective, he said.
“I have a new appreciation for it,” Hale said.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., he did not learn about Juneteenth at home or in school. The first time he heard about it was from an African American woman who used to frequent the gift shop he worked at in the 1990s.
One summer day, he remembered, she said she was going to a party to celebrate Juneteenth — an important historical event, she told him.
“I’m thinking about all the enslaved people in Texas today, having to wait two years to find out they were free,” Hale said, standing underneath the 145-year-old statue. “And I’m thinking of that woman, who taught me.”