By Sherrita A. Polk, DO; member, ACOFP Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force
June 19, 1865, is significant because this was the date when enslaved African Americans were freed in Galveston, Texas, after a Union General made the announcement. This came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became a law in January 1863. As a remembrance of this day, June 19—otherwise known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day—has become a day to commemorate the freedom of slavery in the United States. However, two U.S. states—Hawaii (currently awaiting the Governor’s approval) and South Dakota—have not recognized this celebration.
Over the years, many obstacles were encountered as people tried to get together and celebrate this day. Initially, the use of public facilities, such as parks and community centers, were prohibited. As a result, many of the early celebrations took place at churches or near bodies of water. This trend has continued throughout many times in history, due to political disenfranchisement by Jim Crow laws, working conditions making it hard to take off work and the shift of African Americans focusing on integration. Despite all of this, Juneteenth has prevailed and is now more prominent than ever, gaining mainstream attention. In fact, President Joe Biden announced just this year that Juneteenth is recognized as a national holiday.
Observance today mainly occurs on the local level with reading the Emancipation Proclamation, singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” readings from prominent African American authors Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison, and registering voters. These celebrations can vary in size and entertainment; don’t be surprised if it consists of a rodeo, baseball game, food festival, Miss Juneteenth ceremony or even a family reunion—to name a few examples.
I grew up in Oklahoma City, many miles from one of the prominent sites of Juneteenth celebrations, and I never heard of the holiday until I was in middle school. Quite surprising with a plethora of history regarding Juneteenth and further subsequent prominent events in African American history, such as the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was not privileged to learn of any of this in the public schools I attended.
However, this day has become prominent in my life and that of my children. I feel that it is important to teach them all the things that have occurred in history. Our typical Juneteenth is a day of relaxation with family, friends and food (usually BBQ). My only hopes are that they continue tradition and teach their children and children’s children about such a historic event. I encourage you to do so as well.