Juneteenth: The Significance of the Celebration

Two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln decreed the Emancipation Proclamation,, opens a new window troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing to more than 250,000 enslaved people that the Civil War had ended and that they were, indeed, free. Granger’s issuance of General Order No. 3, which took place on June 19, 1865, signified freedom for all. It was a time of immense joy and celebration then, and it remains so today.

What’s in a Name?

Originally known as Manumission Day, which refers to the act of owners freeing their captives, the holiday has also been referred to as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and Freedom Day, among others. However, it is now known as Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, lending reverence to that transformative day in 1865.

Juneteenth: The Celebration

While some of the earliest recorded traditions surrounding the holiday involved prayer, family gatherings, and annual pilgrimages by the formerly enslaved, many of the larger events involved more outward expressions of joy and celebration, such as music, dancing, team sports, rodeos and more. The reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was--and still is--common at many Juneteenth events.

Some individuals still prefer the more intimate backyard barbecue with family and friends. In her Juneteenth-focused cookbook Watermelon & Red Birds, opens a new window, food writer and author Nicole A. Taylor writes, “The cookout is sacred. It’s the closest thing we get in modern life to the tribe gathering around the ceremonial fire.”

Others choose to set aside June 19th as a day of remembrance and meditation. But for those who opt for large-scale organized events, modern Juneteenth festivities include activities such as parades, musical performances, inspirational guest speakers, fashion shows, scholarship pageants, block parties, run/walks, and marketplaces featuring local vendors, especially minority vendors.

What’s With the Red Food and Drink?

Regardless of the type of celebration, they all share a common thread--amazing food. The Juneteenth table, then and now, is prominently filled with red foods and drinks. Central to the festivities is barbecue, as it is considered a red food. Alongside it, such delectable dishes as red velvet cake, red beans and rice, and red-colored fruits, such as cherries and strawberries, can often be found. 

In anticipation of the upcoming celebration that year, a 1933 article in the Dallas Morning News reported “watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade will be consumed in quantity.” The clear emphasis on crimson begs the question, “Why red?” Virginia-based food anthropologist, writer and award-winning podcast host Deb Freeman answers this way, “The red foods on Juneteenth serve as a powerful symbol of resilience.”

“The red drink” is considered the holiday's official beverage and can take many forms, including strawberry soda, red lemonade, and hibiscus tea, among others. This tradition is rooted in West African culture, beginning with both the kola and hibiscus plants, whose seeds were steeped in water and quickly became infused into the culinary traditions of African Americans.

The Significance of the Holiday

Freeman says it’s important to grasp the significance of Juneteenth by viewing it through the lens of those who lived at that time. “Gaining their freedom offered the formerly enslaved hope and promise that their lives (and thus, those of their descendants) would be better. It instilled a sense of hope for the future of what was possible.” 

Celebrating Juneteenth

Learn more about the history of Juneteenth and ways to celebrate through the titles listed here.

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Learn more about African American foodways and culinary history via Deb Freeman’s critically acclaimed and multi-award winning podcast Setting the Table, opens a new window, available wherever you enjoy podcasts, and check out some of her favorite books from the library.

CRRL Guest Picks: Debra Freeman

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