There are many minor holidays in America. Perhaps the ones that may cause your local bank branch to close early, but are not celebrated on a national scale. These holidays may not be known in the next county over, because they celebrate someone or some event that held significance to a specific region, and its effects may not have rippled through the entire state, let alone nation. However, we still celebrate these minor holidays and usually with food, and lots of it.
Then there is Juneteenth. Until June 17, 2021 when President Joseph Biden signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday, it was relatively unknown in some areas. However, its significance is monumental and the events of June 19, 1865 sent huge waves throughout the entire country. It is the day that America was set free by setting Americans free.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But declaring freedom of people who were considered "property" at that time did not necessarily make slave owners comply. So although Lincoln proclaimed that slaves held in Confederate states were to be freed, the slave owners did not obey.
At the time, Texas was the westernmost state and the farthest to reach to enforce the law. Plantation owners withheld the information and Union troops were too far away to spread the news. It took another two-and-a-half years for the slaves in Texas to be informed of their freedom. It was far more important to the slave owners to squeeze as much free labor during the harvest and planting seasons as they could before finally acquiescing to free the Americans they purported to own as property.
Finally, on June 19, 1865, 2000 Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas and General Granger read the order releasing 250,000 Americans from bondage. It had been two and a half years since they were granted their freedom without knowing.
Celebrating New Freedom
The day was observed with a quiet procession of newly freed men, women, and children, through the city and ending at the local Negro Church (as it was known then). From there, the celebrations included small picnics with friends and neighbors consisting of whatever rations people had to cook and share with one another, because you cannot prepare for a celebration that you do not know is coming. Red lemonade, and beverages tinted with hibiscus or kola nut were already common among enslaved people of African descent, and they prepared their usual cooked field greens, beans, okra, cornbread. Black Americans had long dug pits to fill with charcoal for roasting meats, so barbecued meats were an early component of the celebrations.
The celebrations grew each year to include more variety of food, and as these newly freed people migrated across the land, so did the Juneteenth celebration. The deep bonds shared by Black Americans after the trauma of slavery brought solidarity for those extra 912 days in bondage after the Emancipation Proclamation so June nineteenth became the de-facto day of liberation for all Black Americans. Because no one is free until everyone is free.
Why Is It Called Juneteenth?
This day, June nineteenth, had many names to mark the occasion. It was referred to as Manumission Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, Freedom Day, and/or Emancipation Day for obvious reasons. However, the name that stuck, in true American fashion, is a nickname, a contraction of June and Nineteenth or Juneteenth.
Red Is the Color
In true American fashion we celebrate this monumental day with food. And not just any food. To honor the sacrifice of the soldiers that fought, and the family members, friends, and loved ones that perished before being set free, coloring foods red became a symbol of the blood shed by and for our people. Some say it was for the slaves that died in the 2.5 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, and some say it’s for the blood, sweat, and tears shed from the beginning of slavery. While the exact reason may be hazy, the bright red you’ll find on a table setting is not.
Across the country, there are some things you’ll find at almost every celebration. With strawberries and cherries in season around the holiday, you’ll find market fresh fruit salads, deviled eggs dusted with paprika, spaghetti, effervescent bowls of red-hued punch with red fruit, and pickles dyed red with Kool-Aid powder (maybe only in Mississippi and Chicago).
Juneteenth Foods Today
While the importance of the day is universal, the traditional foods that people prepare to mark celebrations like Juneteenth vary by region, and by family. As a Mississippi-Chicagoan I got the best of two American regions.
My family in Chicago grilled fat, red smoked sausages that were split lengthwise, while my family in Mississippi put Hot Links, tinted with paprika and chilies, on the grill. Both made baked beans, heavy on the red beans and with a little extra ketchup added to the bbq sauce, chopped chilies or red peppers were added to many dishes, and any side dish that didn’t have a red component was sprinkled liberally with sweet paprika.
Desserts were another story, though, and heavily influenced by location. In Chicago my aunts baked strawberry cakes, or berry cobblers (heavy on strawberries and raspberries) while my family in Mississippi made red velvet sheet cake, and strawberry shortcakes made with fluffy biscuits (not angel food cake).
Freedom for All Americans
Juneteenth may be the most significant holiday in the timeline of America, right up there with our country gaining independence from British rule. Although it is a recognized holiday in many states, many people have only heard about it recently, and it is a holiday we should all celebrate together as fellow Americans.
America was founded on the ideals of freedom from persecution, from tyranny, and that no person on this land shall be deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. On June 19, 1865 America took an important step in living up to those principles. And that is something we can all toast to and celebrate together, because if our principles don’t apply to all of us, they don’t apply to any of us.