EDITOR’S NOTE: All interviews were conducted before President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021.
Juneteenth National Independence Day is officially a federal holiday in the United States after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law. The holiday, which marks the end of slavery in the United States, represents an opportunity for the country to support Black businesses, to celebrate with loved ones, and to spread truths about this country’s violent, racist history. But is it possible that the widespread growth and potential commercialization of Juneteenth could actually corrupt the day’s true meaning?
Presently, as activists, protesters and lawmakers continue to fight against police brutality and racial oppression, advocates for Juneteenth argue that the federal holiday will help to highlight slavery’s immense impact on the present lives of Black people. “There needs to be a reckoning, an effort to unify,” Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee told Time in 2020. “One thing about national holidays, they help educate people about what the story is.”
Charmaine Gibbs-West, CEO and Founder of EssenceTree Holistic Life, tells Colorlines that as a Black business owner she sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to build wealth in the Black community. “It is my hope that, in making Juneteenth a federal holiday, that it represents more of an emphasis towards our people to put their investments into the Black community,” she said. “It’s a time to talk about our responsibilities for ourselves and our communities. It’s time to emphasize the importance of self-reliance and entrepreneurship. We’ve seen that we can’t rely on anyone else, and that our justice is delayed. It’s my hope that [this holiday can become] a turning point.”
While Cooper and Gibbs-West are in support of Juneteenth becoming a federally recognized holiday, not everyone shares their sentiments. Colorlines posed the following question to noted scholars, writers and activists, “Juneteenth is now a national holiday. Is that good news?” Reverend Eboni Marshall Turman, Ph.D. responded. Watch Marshall’s rousing statement that serves as a reminder to all that Black freedom will never be for sale.
Juneteenth (June 19), typically refers to the day in 1865- two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed- when enslaved people in Texas finally received word of their freedom from Major General Gordon Granger. Late historian Hari Jones, however, told NPR in 2008 that the true history of Juneteenth has been lost and needs to come to the light.
Jones, who worked as the assistant director and curator at the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C, said that the common, widespread version of Juneteenth’s beginning is the result of an “orchestrated propaganda campaign,” to show enslaved people being rescued by a white person. The truth, he said, is that “more than 10,000 African-American soldiers in the Union Army present in Galveston had to defeat the state government of Texas in order to enforce the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation. “We’re celebrating the completion of a military campaign and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Jones explained. “[African American soldiers] chased the governor of Texas and four to 10 thousand rebel soldiers out of the United States, across the rail ground, into Mexico.”
Formerly enslaved Texans celebrated with the first Juneteenth Ball on June 19, 1865 in Lubbock, Texas, according to Jones. They were celebrating a military victory, which, Jones argued, gets to the heart of Juneteenth. Black people fought for their own freedom and won that fight. Jones believed it’s unjust to approach the day as a celebration of the false narrative that a white man informed enslaved people of their freedom. Not only is it wrong, he said, but it’s also “a celebration of victims, not victors.”
If the details behind Juneteenth’s genesis have been broadly suppressed for so long, how can the ancestors of enslaved people in the United States reclaim their truth and ensure that a Juneteenth federal holiday will also serve the people it aims to celebrate? Dr. Melissa Cooper, associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and author of “Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race and the American Imagination,” believes a Juneteenth federal holiday allows the end of slavery to be widely acknowledged as a critical part of the American story. “In the past, the push for federal acknowledgement of important moments in Black history and other significant commemorations in Black life have centered on the desire for the Black past and Black experience to be incorporated as essential episodes in the larger story of America- an acknowledgement that these events are important moments for national reflection,” Cooper told Colorlines.
“We’ve fought for this country. We’ve made great strides, but we’re still the victims of sharp disparities. Our neighborhoods reflect that,” Jackson Lee told Time. “We’ve been denied the same opportunities for housing, access to healthcare, and, in 2020, [during] COVID-19, all of the glaring disparities are shown. Because of that, I think this is a time that we may find people who are desirous to understand the history not necessarily only of African Americans, but the history of America.”
Gibbs-West says she understands that as more people become aware of Juneteenth, there’s a chance that more and more businesses outside of the Black community will find ways to profit off of the holiday. She believes that this reality should remind the Black community to push those [non-Black] businesses to give back. “It’s my hope that if [a major company is] selling Juneteenth merchandise, that they are also investing in the Black community in the form of various programs,” she said. We occupy space on their shelves and we shop in their stores, so we should also have their support.
In 2020, businesses like Sephora, West Elm, Yelp, Madewell, Vogue, Macy’s, Rent the Runway, and Bloomingdales committed to the The 15 Percent Pledge. The challenge, started by fashion designer Aurora James, calls on major retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, because Black people represent 15 percent of the population. Target, which has sold Juneteenth merchandise in the past, recently committed to spending $2 billion with Black-owned businesses, and to add products from more than 500 Black-owned businesses to its inventory by the end of 2025. Juneteenth serves as a reminder for other American companies to keep this momentum going.
The truth, in the end, is that Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom and a stark reminder of the work that still needs to take place. A federal holiday will only raise cultural awareness and will hopefully make room for widespread growth and learning. Cooper argues that it’s unlikely that the true meaning of the day will be lost, even as it continues to expand and generate financial gains across the country.
Neither the government nor big business will be able to corrupt what Juneteenth symbolizes and means to the ancestors of enslaved people in America. “While wider recognition of any historic commemoration that has regional and local roots inherently creates an opportunity for reinterpretation and new commemoration traditions,” Cooper explained, “the meaning and significance of Juneteenth will ultimately be defined by the individuals and communities who gather to celebrate it.”
Shani Saxon is a full-time television and film development executive who also works as a freelance writer in the criminal justice and immigration space. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her three children and their boss, a rescue dog named Stormy.