Tens of thousands of Americans participated in protests, rallies, street parties, strikes, and Confederate statue-toppling across the nation in celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery in the US, fueled by momentum from the racial justice protest movement that’s emerged after the police killing of George Floyd in May.
The lively demonstrations come as many politicians and prominent businesses have taken steps to make the holiday a day off from work and school, and reflect an ongoing cultural realignment among progressives intended to acknowledge and support the struggle for racial equality.
Juneteenth — a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” that marks the day when enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were free from slavery — is traditionally celebrated with cookouts, parades, church gatherings, and spirituals in the black community.
But this year the holiday took on a special, broader resonance in light of daily marches and demonstrations against police brutality and racism triggered by Floyd’s death, and appeared to inspire an extra large wave of protest energy and celebrations in cities across the country.
In Minneapolis, people walked, ran and bicycled along a five-mile route that ended where Floyd was killed by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and Black Lives Matter protesters organized a reparations rally outside the state capitol.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago observed a “Juneteenth like no other” as marches swept the streets and Chicagoans attended outdoor festivals celebrating the day.
Oakland’s local longshoremen’s union arranged a strike and shut down 29 ports across the West Coast, according to the Guardian. Union workers marched alongside a car caravan, people riding bicycles and motorcycles, and thousands of other demonstrators on foot.
In Philadelphia, where the mayor had just declared Juneteenth a city holiday, demonstrators marched through parts of the city in silence, and at one protest fashion models wore the creations of black designers.
Protests and celebrations took place across all five boroughs in New York. In Harlem, people celebrated with African food, art, and music, and a male-led group chanted “protect our queens” to demand justice for Breonna Taylor and other women of color killed by police, according to the Guardian.
Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at a rally packed with thousands in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District on Friday, and sharply criticized Trump’s threats that protesters against his presidential campaign rally in the city the next day would be treated roughly. “It’s going to take more than a lot of threats and backfighting and a crooked criminal justice system to stop us,” Sharpton said. “They put our forefathers on blocks and sold us like a bar of soap, and we never stopped fighting. They took our names to where we don’t know our names — we are named after those who owned our forefathers. But even nameless, we never stopped fighting.”
Trump had originally scheduled his Tulsa rally on Juneteenth itself, but backed off in response to widespread criticism that it seemed to be a racist provocation, given that the city is the site of one of the bloodiest episodes of racist violence in American history.
Protesters tore down Confederate statues in Washington, DC, and Raleigh, North Carolina. In DC, demonstrators used chains to take down an 11-foot bronze statue of Confederate General Albert Pike — the only public, outdoor statue in the city that honored a Confederate general — and then set it on fire.
And protesters just toppled the Albert Pike statue in DC pic.twitter.com/gEzJm0OYjd— Perry Stein (@PerryStein) June 20, 2020
Juneteenth is quickly becoming a different kind of holiday
Friday marked the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, which also goes by a number of other monikers, including Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth National Freedom Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day. As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas has explained, the holiday is a symbol both of victory and tragedy for black Americans who suffered under slavery:
A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. But, woefully, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War was still going on, and when it ended, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Texas and issued an order stating that all enslaved people were free, establishing a new relationship between “former masters and slaves” as “employer and hired labor.” As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.
Juneteenth has long been celebrated by millions of black Americans. But given that Juneteenth is not an anniversary taught in many schools, is not recognized as a federal holiday, and competes with other emancipation holidays, it seems to have been largely unknown among many Americans.
At least until now. Recognition of Juneteenth appears to be changing amid a broader cultural shift intended to reckon more deeply with the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in American life.
Many businesses like Nike, Google, the NFL (and Vox Media) are recognizing Juneteenth as a company holiday. Senate Democrats introduced legislation on Friday calling for Juneteenth to be a national holiday; Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is a cosponsor of the bill. And mayors and governors across the country have either declared it a holiday in their city or state or announced plans to do so.
As Cineas put it in her explainer on the holiday, previously Juneteenth seems to have been seen as something specifically for the black community. Now it’s evolving into something else.
“In 2020, the meaning of Juneteenth is being seized more broadly by activists as an opportunity for the United States to come to terms with how slavery continues to affect the lives of all Americans today — it is something for everyone, of every race, to engage in.”