Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general arrived in Texas, accompanied by 2,000 troops, and delivered the news that all enslaved Black people in the state were free. That was June 19, 1865, and on its one-year anniversary, the very first Juneteenth celebrations took place there.
They soon spread to other states, and eventually across the nation. It became an annual tradition, and just two years ago, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
But this day of observance has a complicated history and present.
At a brew pub in mostly rural Rockingham County, North Carolina, Johnny Carter is concerned about the direction the country’s going in. Born in 1968, he says he grew up with lots of friends of different races. But today he sees divisions along color lines everywhere, and he thinks a holiday like Juneteenth doesn’t help.
"Would I want a particular holiday for something that was going on in the white world only and be paraded for what reason?" he asks. "I mean, we’re one group of people."
Nearby, Ingrid McGraw has always loved history and has a very different take on Juneteenth.
"Well, I think everybody can learn from celebrating other people’s wins," she says. "You know, that was all that their ancestors knew. And to go from that to freedom and be able to make all of their own decisions independently, I can’t imagine."
Juneteenth is one of several emancipation celebrations around the world, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade abolition of 1808 across the Americas to the end of British slavery throughout the West Indies in 1834. But in the United States, this important marker has always been overshadowed by the national holiday that follows just two weeks later: July 4th, commemorating this country's freedom from Great Britain, and the independence to be self-determinative.
Wake Forest University humanities professor Corey Walker directs the program in African American studies and calls July 4th a reminder that the promises of our highest ideals can be compromised by the frailties of the human condition.
"But falling short does not mean we stop the journey," says Walker. "It means that we recommit ourselves with earnest dedication to fulfilling the promises of these great ideals in trying to embody them for now and for those who come and who will continue the journey."
Even though Juneteenth is more than a century and a half old, it’s not nearly as widely known or celebrated as Independence Day, particularly among whites. Walker says it’s not that this history isn’t known, it’s that it isn’t known widely enough.
He and other scholars have called for the period between Juneteenth and July 4th to be used for public education surrounding freedom and independence. Walker says this "Freedom Fortnight" or "Civic Season" as it’s also referred to can be a time to reflect on the complexities of history at the national and local levels.
"What does it mean to think the narrative of Winston-Salem?" he asks. "Typically, we have a narrative that begins with the Moravians and then moves to Reynolds and tobacco and then moves to our contemporary moment of innovation and the arts. Well, that’s a nice narrative ... it gives us a wonderful arc ... but it overlooks so much of the lived experiences of people: Indigenous Americans, African Americans. So, what these efforts do is remind us of the complexity of history."
Triad Cultural Arts Founder Cheryl Harry grew up in Winston-Salem and began organizing Juneteenth celebrations in 1999. Recently she’s disrupted the commonly accepted local narrative and is teaching people about where the celebrations take place, an area now known as Innovation Quarter. There you'll see shiny new condominiums, research facilities, and restaurants, currently standing where a thriving African American neighborhood known as "Black Wall Street" stood for generations.
"This is more of a homecoming for us because of people like McLean Stenography, all the doctors’ offices that were there, the Black cafes, pharmacy," says Harry. "So, the Black history is not relegated to one area in Winston-Salem, our footprint expands throughout the city."
In Greensboro, Juneteenth celebrations have grown over the past few years — music in the park, Black-owned arts and crafts, food truck vendors, culminating in a gospel celebration. It’s being co-organized by Juneteenth Greensboro’s Princess H. Johnson. She says this year she’ll be leading a legacy awards ceremony showcasing established local artists who’ve made major contributions.
"We do a documentary to try to capture a piece of their life for the audience," she says. "And then we have someone that was mentored by them that does a live tribute performance in their honor, and then they get to receive their custom medallion award. So, it’s a great evening. We all dress up in our Afro-centric attire, soul food catering ... "
At the Greensboro History Museum, the time between Juneteenth and July 4th will be used to reflect on local and U.S. history — a period that’s been coined "Civic Season." The museum's curator of community history, Glenn Perkins, says there will be costumed interpreters portraying important lesser-known historical figures who’ve contributed to North Carolina’s democracy.
"It’s all these different voices and experiences across that really long time period that can tell those diverse stories of what makes us U.S," says Perkins. "You know, it’s all those different perspectives and all those different struggles, people insisting that the promises made on July 4th get fulfilled."
Perkins says that a big part of "Civic Season" is about discussing democracy and politics where people often disagree, values and beliefs bump into each other, and things can get heated.
"But what we’re trying to communicate through the democracy exhibit is that disagreement is at the center of what it takes for democracy," says Perkins. "But how can we get through that disagreement to a place where we can move forward together?"
And, back in Rockingham County, moving forward together will be at the heart of the Freedom Fortnight Festival taking place in Eden, North Carolina, on June 24. Dialogue coach David Campt is organizing the event, and in full disclosure, Campt is a regular guest contributor to WFDD’s Let’s Talk About It.
He says in order to get the most out of this holiday one focus should be on the role non-Black Americans played in emancipating the roughly 250,000 enslaved people on that fateful day in 1865.
"For me, the Juneteenth story at its essence is about allyship," says Campt. "Now it’s also about the struggle for Black liberation that Black folks have been striving for centuries, but you wouldn’t have Juneteenth if you didn’t have a whole bunch of white folks who came to say, ‘This oppression needs to end.’"
Campt says this festival is an attempt to not only celebrate July 4th and Juneteenth but to also undermine what he calls a high level of social segregation in the county.
"I’ve lived in other places, and I’m amazed at how many events in Rockingham County are either all Black or all white," says Campt. "And I think that ultimately if we’re going to undermine that, we need to consciously have events that try to bring together people across different lines and say, ‘We’re different but we’re connected,’ and we can lean into our commonality and differences and celebrate the progress we’ve made toward freedom."
Campt says there will be food trucks with classic Americana and soul foods combined on one plate to represent the commonality of experience. There will also be a diverse youth choir singing American anthems, storytelling, and cookout games.
"I think we need to be careful that we don’t go forward with these two holidays as Independence Day is a white folks’ celebration of freedom and Juneteenth is the Black folks’ celebration of freedom," he says. "We have these two national holidays and so I think we all need to think about what we can all get out of them."
And for Corey Walker, whose recent article in the nonprofit news website The Conversation is titled “6 books that explain the history and meaning of Juneteenth,” what we get is the story of our nation.
"It is how a group of people have come to create profound meaning and existence under conditions of oppression, and under conditions of denial and denigration," he says. "When we celebrate Juneteenth we’re celebrating the vision of human possibility, the triumph of the human spirit, and that is a story for all humans to embrace."
*Correction: A previously broadcast version of this story and web version incorrectly indicated that Juneteenth occurred two and a half years after the end of the Civil War. Juneteenth occurred two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).