Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson
Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900. Credit: Austin History Center.
From 1865 forward, African Americans gathered in Texas every year to honor and celebrate their freedom. These celebrations evolved into what is known today as Juneteenth, but were also referred to as 'Jubilee Day' and 'Emancipation Day' early on. African Americans were prohibited from using public spaces to celebrate Juneteenth, so they collected money to purchase land to carry on the tradition. Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas was purchased for this purpose in 1872 for $1,000.
Outdoor activities, dressing up and shared food were the three main elements of Juneteenth celebrations. Rodeos, fishing, baseball, prayer services, singing, dancing, and reciting the Emancipation Proclamation were all common activities. Guests often dressed in their finest clothing for the occasion and everyone brought food to share with others. The barbeque pit became one of the most important aspects of the day.
“More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors—the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies.”
–Excerpt from Juneteenth.com
Juneteenth became more than just a celebration of freedom. It became a way for families to reunite; a way for African Americans to organize politically, economically and spiritually; a way to educate and inspire future generation to come; and a way to show their pride, strength and resolve.
“Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.”
From its humble beginnings in Texas, Juneteenth is now celebrated in cities and towns throughout the country. Millions of Americans gather to experience this celebration. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Today, 41 states either recognize or observe Juneteenth as a state holiday.
Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center