Juneteenth is the oldest national commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Though the Emancipation Proclamation stated that all slaves were free as of January 1, 1863, many enslaved African Americans only learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended. Today, Juneteenth commemorates African American liberation and celebrates Black history and culture, both of which are appreciated and valued at Carolina.
There is an official flag flown during Juneteenth (pictured above). The flag, created in 1997 by activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF) and Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf, was morphed into the current version.
The symbols on the flag represent important elements of Juneteenth:
- The date, June 19, 1865, refers to the day when enslaved African Americans learned of their emancipation.
- The Star represents Texas, the Lone Star State, as well as the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states.
- The burst outlining the star, inspired by a nova (what astronomers refer to as a new star), represents a new beginning for all African Americans.
- The arc represents a new horizon full of opportunities and promise for Black Americans.
- The red, white and blue represents the American flag, reminding slaves and their descendants that they are Americans.
Renée Alexander Craft, Acting Director, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for African American Research (IAAR), provided a reflection on the importance of Juneteenth, entitled “Why We Should All Should Celebrate Juneteenth.” We hope it will provide both insight and inspiration:
In the midst of a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities, a righteous reckoning over policing and its relationship to anti-Black violence, the toppling and removal of anti-Black monuments from public spaces, and amplified demands for polices and practices that promote the equitable treatment of African Diaspora people wherever we may be; the U.S. ought to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, the date on which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas final received the news they were free. This was two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one year after the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, on April 18, 1864, and six months after it was passed by the House on January 31, 1865.
The history of Black experiences in the U.S. is “justice delayed” and, all too often, “justice denied.” This is not a Black problem. It is an American problem. The nation seems more collectively aware of that on June 19, 2020, than it has been in recent years.
Even when national policies decreed that slavery had ended, Black people remained enslaved. Many national policies currently mandate equal treatment, yet Black people remain disproportionately targeted by the police, incarcerated, denied equitable access to healthcare, and underrepresented in national, state and local positions of power.
IAAR stands in solidarity with those who call for our nation to elevate Juneteenth to a federal holiday. What would it mean to give a national mandate to close banks and post offices, to halt regular business practices and to fill parks and city streets (honoring COVID-19 protective measures) with celebrations making the much-delayed but greatly celebrated news that slavery had finally ended? What would it mean for the nation to collectively celebrate Black liberation? What would it mean to our shared American experience for White people, even in predominantly White spaces, to celebrate Black freedom?
Juneteenth ought to be both a federal celebration and an annual reckoning on race that prompts agencies of the State, as well as private industry, to evaluate the ways in which their policies facilitate or frustrate Black experiences of equity and inclusion. Black History month honors African American contributions to the nation and is a designated time to center knowledge that is often marginalized the other 11 months of the year. MLK National Holiday is a day of service and reflection that focuses on the life and civil rights accomplishments of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But these do not explicitly call the nation to collectively celebrate and recommit itself to the project of Black freedom.
As the protests of the past few weeks have reminded us, We the People make this nation better for all of us when we united in our demands for progress. Our collective actions have the power to change policies and shift cultural norms. So, Happy Emancipation Day! Tell your neighbors, tell your coworkers, tell your friends. Then, act in ways to make it true.
These turbulent times serve as a resounding affirmation that the work of Black studies departments, programs, centers, and institutes remain as urgent now as it ever has been.”