How to Honor Juneteenth, According to Black Activists

AAmericans prepare to observe the new federal holiday on Sunday: Juneteenth, in honor of June 19, 1865, when enslaved men and women in Galveston, Texas discovered they were free after the civil war. Many will have a long weekend that includes Monday, June 20, but, especially given the history of the holiday, finding appropriate ways to mark the day is still a work in progress.

Already, companies are learning not to celebrate Juneteenth. Walmart has apologized for selling pints of Juneteenth-themed red velvet ice cream – which some say was similar to that sold by a Cincinnati-based black-owned company, Creamalicious. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has apologized for selling a June 19-themed watermelon salad in its cafeteria. And Dollar Tree drew criticism from black Twitter users for promoting Paper plates and napkins on the theme of June 19.

“You know that song ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over?” It’s like Juneteenth is in full swing,” says Reverend John Mosley, who has been organizing Juneteenth rallies in New Orleans since the early 1990s.

TIME spoke with black activists who have held June 19 celebrations for decades, including activists who have advocated for June 19 to become a national holiday, a goal they achieved in 2021. They all agreed that it will take some time for most Americans to learn the best ways to honor Juneteenth — and that some commercialization is to be expected. And they said while summertime gatherings with friends and family are entirely appropriate for Juneteenth, these celebrations should ideally support the black community in some way and include an educational component, whether it’s Whether reflecting on the origins of the holiday and its legacy or participating in ongoing activities. work to achieve full racial equality.

“I hope I don’t look up one day and see June 19th sales like you see July 4th sales, but of course that could happen at some point in the future,” said Deborah Evans, gatekeeper. word of the National Juneteenth. Observance Foundation, which promotes educational programs about Juneteenth and advocates for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. “We have been the son-in-law of the holidays for years. It was mostly within the black community, so we need to have more education on what Juneteenth means. Right now it’s just a picnic day for a lot of people.

Cliff Robinson, who runs the Juneteenth.com website that lists June 19 celebrations nationwide, says people should consider June 19 another Memorial Day — one that commemorates Americans who have died serving their country or Veterans Day – celebrating those who served. Reacting to Walmart’s June 19 ice cream debacle, he says, “We don’t have ice cream for Veterans Day, we don’t have ice cream for Memorial Day.” He suggests companies make a special effort to partner with black entrepreneurs and businesses for the holidays, as Juneteenth “is about healing and righting the harms resulting from slavery.”

Many June 19 celebrations, Robinson says, involve going to church, so he encourages people to go to a church where the minister will speak about June 19. Churches have always been a place of refuge in the black community. Church services on June 19 can include a gospel choir, and this year the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation is asking places of worship to post on their doors General Order No. 3, the 1865 document that notified Texan slaves their freedom.

Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which has advocated on Capitol Hill for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, said real Juneteenth rallies should include readings from the “freedom papers”: the Emancipation Proclamation ; the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; and General Order No. 3.

June 19 celebrations are relatively new, even for many members of the black community. Ronald V. Myers founded the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation more than 25 years ago and has placed Juneteenth on the calendars of 43 states and the District of Columbia. While the day has been observed in various ways since 1865, Juneteenth became more popular after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. It rose to prominence in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd helped spark racial justice protests across the country, and particularly after former President Trump’s attempt to hold a June 19 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a location where, 100 years earlier, a crowd of white residents had burned down an area known as Black Wall Street, killing up to 300 of their fellow black Tulsans.

Juneteenth activist, 95, Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas, who saw President Joe Biden sign the bill that made Juneteenth a national holiday last year, says she hopes Juneteenth will become a service day. At the very least, she says, her wish is for people to do a kind act for someone.

“I don’t mean we just got together and celebrated. We have to take care of each other,” Lee says. “I don’t mean you have to do something prodigious: smile at someone or watch the children while their mother goes to the store, or help an old lady like me across the street.”

But Juneteenth activists also hope the holiday will encourage people to talk about what is needed to end racial disparities throughout the year.

“Juneteenth is not a black thing, not a Texas thing. It’s about freedom for everyone,” Lee says. “As long as we have unemployment, homelessness, and health care some may get and some don’t, and climate change, all of those things have to be addressed for us to be free.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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