Juneteenth is named for June 19, 1865, the date when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas learned that they were free. This was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted, and over two months after the Civil War ended.
“The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation,” says the Juneteenth World Wide Celebration website. Juneteenth, the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, continues to capture this jubilation.
For Black Americans, the celebration is a familiar one. “Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement,” says the Juneteenth website. The educational and commemorative aspect is part of the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade and Festival. When it began in 2016, the founders’ vision included laying a wreath at the President’s House in Market Street to honor the Africans that George Washington enslaved there. There are elements of remembering the past, embracing the present, and looking ahead to the future. “[W]e join together to have fun, embrace our history and continue the tradition of Kujichagulia (self-determination),” says the Philadelphia Juneteenth website.
For other Americans, Juneteenth may be unfamiliar. But this should not be so. The stories a nation chooses to listen to have great power to shape who we are as people. And who we are as people affects what the future will be like. There is a growing movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday—a federally recognized part of our country’s story. There are many official national holidays–but none to celebrate the end of slavery.
Making Juneteenth an official national holiday is so important to civil rights activist Opal Lee, the longtime leader of the Juneteenth celebration in Fort Worth, Texas, that a couple of years ago, she decided to walk from Fort Worth, to Washington, D.C., gathering signatures on a petition to make the holiday official nationwide.
She was ninety years old when she set out.
“Could you just imagine if all the cities in the U.S. would do Juneteenth like the Fourth of July?” asks Lee. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
In the end, the 100,000 signatures needed could not be collected before the deadline, but there is another petition still open here. Lee continues to advocate for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, and she continues to lead Fort Worth’s official Juneteenth celebration. Always pouring her energy into improving the world around her, this former schoolteacher has also recently started an urban farm called Opal’s Farm outside of Fort Worth in order to bring fresh, healthy food into the city’s food deserts.
Food To Celebrate and Educate
Food takes a starring role at any celebration, and Juneteenth is no exception. Red food is traditional—“a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage,” says Nicole Taylor in the New York Times. She lists watermelon, hot sauce, red velvet cake, and spicy hot links as common foods. “A strawberry pie,” she adds, “wouldn’t be out of place.”
For me, as a white woman, education seems more appropriate than celebration. I rejoice that the horror of chattel slavery has ended. I celebrate that. But I am not the one whose ancestors were literally set free when the emancipation proclamation took effect. There’s elation there that I will never know and must appreciate from a respectful distance.
But I also want others to know about Juneteenth. The more people know, the more Juneteenth becomes a part of our national story, and the more there’s a chance that there will be a federally recognized holiday on the calendar to celebrate and reflect on the end of 250 years of slavery in the United States. As the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that challenges poverty and injustice, puts it, “To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history.”
Food can be a way to spark conversations. If people in your community aren’t aware of Juneteenth, making one of the foods associated with Juneteenth, such as strawberry pie, could be a way to begin educating each other. It is admittedly a very small thing, but if it inspires facing our country’s history, and listening to Black Americans about why this celebration is vital, it can be a small but important step.
- 2 pounds fresh strawberries
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- pinch of salt
- ⅓ cup cold unsalted butter
- 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
- Prepare the crust: Mix flour and salt. Use a pastry cutter to cut in the cold butter. Mix until it reaches the consistency of coarse crumbs (cornmeal). Slowly add 4 tablespoons of water, working the mixture with your hands until it begins to come together. Add more water only if you can't get the mixture to stick together after working it for several seconds. (Don't overwork it or the dough will be too hard.)
- Wrap in plastic wrap and place in fridge for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F. Roll the dough out on a well floured surface, and transfer to pie plate. Line the dough with parchment paper and add pie weights or dried beans to the top. Bake the crust for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, prick crust with fork, and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes. The crust should be golden.
- While pie is baking, wash, hull, and chop the berries into small pieces (8 pieces for large berries, 4 pieces for small ones). Divide the berries, cooking about 1 ½ cups of them in a saucepan and crushing them with a big spoon, and setting the rest aside. Add to the crushed berries: sugar, cornstarch and water. Cook on medium until thickened. Remove from heat and add lime juice and salt. Stir in the uncooked berries.
- Add this strawberry mixture to the baked pie crust. Serve with whipped cream if desired.