Let’s Talk About It: Juneteenth

Before we can get into how to celebrate Juneteenth, we must first understand what this day is and why we commemorate it.

Madelyn Collins | June 19, 2023 | Energy Justice

In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation that made June 19, Juneteenth, a federal holiday. For many people in the U.S., this is the first time they will experience a day off to observe. Or it may even be the first time someone has heard of the word “Juneteenth”. For Americans who have never been exposed to or participated in observing the recently instituted federal holiday, there can be confusion on how to celebrate or even why they should care. With no context, direction, or guidance, this day can become ‘just another day.’

So if you fall into the camp of “What is Juneteenth?”, let’s explore how this monumental date in history impacted our nation and why we are all encouraged to observe and celebrate America’s other National Independence Day.

What is Juneteenth?

After the Civil War, a presidential proclamation and executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, was issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

This proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, but the actual implementation and enforcement of this proclamation was not swift.

My own ancestors on my mother’s side were enslaved in Tennessee and would not see freedom until August 8, 1863. This day would become known as “Jubilee Day,” which has roots in the biblical meaning of ‘jubilee,’ referring to every 50th year when people were freed from their debts, released from their slavers, property was returned, and the year was dedicated to rest. Both my mom and nana have told me stories of celebrating on August 8 and how that was the one day out of the year our town’s local park waived the “Whites Only” rule. You’ll find that many different places in America have their own Jubilee Day celebrations, depending on when enslaved people got their freedom.

It was not until June 19, 1865, that soldiers marched into the town of Galveston, Texas to give that life-changing news: The Civil War had ended and all enslaved people were finally free from the sinister system of chattel slavery.

The reason the news took so long to get to Texas was because the proclamation was deliberately withheld by enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. For two years and 169 days, the enslaved people of Texas were barred from learning about and experiencing their freedom. Once the slave owners had time to reap their desired amount of capital from the cotton harvests, federal troops were then given the green light to finally enforce the freeing of those slaves.

If people and the planet are not both thriving, our work is not done.

We collectively celebrate on June 19th because it is the day the last were freed, not the first. We recognize that true liberation cannot be possible if some still remain in bondage. As an advocate and activist in the environmental justice space, it is a similar spirit I put into my work. If people and the planet are not both thriving, our work is not done. Celebrating Juneteenth is to live in the essence of a shared jubilee day and to mirror that principle in all parts of our lives.

Is Juneteenth a Black-Only Holiday?

Although Juneteenth centers and celebrates an incredible milestone and historical moment in Black liberation history, it does not mean only Black people can celebrate. We have to remember that Black history is American history, and the freeing of enslaved people and fighting oppression is a story we share as a nation. Many people from all different walks of life, no matter their race, have participated and contributed to the work of abolition and civil rights. It would be a disservice to learn history and not recognize all the people and stories that makeup what happened and what is still happening today.

How Can Non-Black Americans Celebrate Juneteenth?

For people who identify as white, one way to connect to the work of abolishing slavery and the connected oppressive systems is by learning the work of past and current white abolitionists and civil rights activists. It takes a village to make a change and brushing up on allied history can be beneficial in your own education on allyship and justice work. White abolitionists and civil rights activists such as John Brown, Prudence Crandall, Anne McCarty Braden, James Zwerg, Viola Liuzzo, and William Lewis Moore have pushed for a more just world. There are many more abolitionists and civil rights activists from all over the world and different backgrounds who have and are still doing work to craft and ensure a just world. Taking the time to learn those stories and how they connect with you is a powerful way to start understanding justice work.

Learning more about our collective history is a great way to observe Juneteenth. Check out the Smithsonian Institution Juneteenth Reading List to look for some books, or go to a local bookstore or library and ask for some reading suggestions. If reading isn’t your thing, find a podcast, movie, or TV show. Maybe you have a local museum you can go to. Access to history is all around us; try to seek it out.

Another great option is to join a community event. Many Black-led cultural centers, community centers, educational institutions, and grassroots organizations will be hosting events that are open and free to the public. If open to the public, join in and learn more about the host and see how you can support or get involved. And don’t let Juneteenth be the only time you pay attention or engage with these organizations.

Another deeply impactful way to observe Juneteenth is to donate to charities, non-profits, and community-based organizations that are doing social and environmental justice work or abolitionist work. If you don’t have the means to give money, think about giving your time. Volunteering to expand the capacity of these organizations is valuable to the community and a good way to understand community needs and priorities up close in a meaningful way.

And if you haven’t already, share the story of Juneteenth! Whether that’s telling someone about what you read here or sharing a post you saw on social media. Spreading the spirit, wisdom, and message of Juneteenth is just as important as learning about it yourself.

This holiday recognizes the blood, sweat, tears, and joy of millions in America in the historical and current effort to dismantle the oppressive systems of slavery that impacts the health of our people and planet.

Whatever you decide to do this Juneteenth, always remember to participate and observe thoughtfully, intentionally, and impactfully. Let us use this time to rest, celebrate, and learn so we can “keep on keeping on”– Happy Juneteenth!

SACE offices will be closed on Monday, June 19, for all of our staff to rest, reflect, and recharge in order to return to our work fighting for a future where everyone thrives!


Madelyn Collins
From as early as she can remember, Madelyn Collins has been connecting to the knowledge, impact, and work of healing environmental injustices. Originally growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, Madelyn…
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