We celebrate Juneteenth to commemorate the day that enslaved Black Texans in the U.S. were finally free. It’s a celebration of our ancestors’ legal freedom. And the acknowledgment of Texas’s determination to continue chattel slavery and oppression. If you want to celebrate Juneteenth this year—but need some activity ideas—you’re in the right place. Keep reading for 12 ideas on how to celebrate Juneteenth this year.
But First: Some Important History
Before we dive into how to celebrate Juneteenth, we want to cover some important facts about the holiday (and clarify some misunderstandings). The Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the National Museum of African American History & Culture is an incredible resource to learn about the intertwined history of freedom and slavery in America. If you’re unable to go in person, I highly recommend visiting the online exhibition. It begins:
“Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities—things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world. The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom. This is a shared story, a shared past, told through the lives of African Americans who helped form the nation.”
The root of the American Civil War (1861-1865) was an unreconcilable position on the institution of slavery between the Northern and the Southern states. The end of the war in 1865 led to the ratification of the 13th amendment, ending chattel slavery in the U.S.
But the truth is that the end of slavery in the U.S. is more complicated than that. This is what Juneteenth is all about.
End of Slavery Timeline
- January 1, 1863 – Emancipation Proclamation
- April 9, 1865 – Civil War Ends
- June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth (General Order Number 6)
- December 6, 1865 – 13th Amendment
What Is The Emancipation Proclamation?
Many of us learned President Lincoln freed enslaved people by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but that’s just plain wrong.
Fact: President Lincoln issued the proclamation twice during the civil war. The second time he issued it, on January 1, 1863, it came with limited scope and declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free”—meaning that the border slave states who sided with the Union could still legally practice slavery.
Fact: The proclamation was both a tool of hope and war. The proclamation was a vision statement that cast radical hope and widespread imagination to enslaved Black folks, freed Black folks, and white abolitionists about the United States’ future.
Concretely, the proclamation legally allowed Black folks (freed and enslaved) to enlist in the Union military. By the end of the war, over 200,000 Black folks would serve in the Union army and navy. Two and a half years after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil war was coming to an end and so was chattel slavery.
Fact: The Emancipation Proclamation did not officially end slavery in the United States, the 13th amendment did.
What Is Juneteenth?
Even though the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery for everyone in the U.S., it still granted enslaved Black people in rebellious states their freedom. But for enslaved people in Texas, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach them until two years after it was signed and two months after the Civil War ended. This shows just how determined Texas was to continue chattel slavery and oppression.
Juneteenth, or Jubliee Day, marks the day federal troops led by Union General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston, Texas to finally set those enslaved people free (even though they had been freed, months earlier already). General Order Number 3 stated:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
We can find records of the first Juneteenth celebration as early as 1866, making this the longest Black American holiday to be celebrated. As Texans migrated around the United States, they brought their celebrations with them. Juneteenth is celebrated in many cities across the United States with family, food, and fun.
Juneteenth is the celebration of Black people working to free themselves of slavery.
Why Many Families Don’t Know About Juneteenth
If you’re recently learning about Juneteenth, you’re not alone. Many families, including Black families, are unaware of this little piece of history. It’s often excluded in history textbooks and family stories because it’s so specific to Texas history. Growing up in the North, there wasn’t any mention of Juneteenth. It wasn’t until we moved to Houston, Texas that I began to learn the rich history of Juneteenth. The truth is that Juneteenth is still rarely taught in schools and was not officially recognized as a holiday by the federal government until June 17, 2021.
If you don’t know about Juneteenth, that’s likely due to the white domination still rampant in American society. Until President Biden officially made Juneteenth a national holiday, there was no commemoration for ending slavery in the U.S. Let that sink in a little bit. In contrast, George Washington’s birthday has been a national holiday since the late 1870s, and Columbus Day has been a national holiday since 1934.
Our country has a long history of avoiding discussing, confronting, and acknowledging its racist history. Celebrating Juneteenth is a way to remember the lives taken by slavery, acknowledge the trauma imposed on generations of Americans who are the descendants of slaves, and celebrate the day of freedom for all enslaved people.
It’s a heavy, devastating topic of conversation, and can be hard to navigate with your young ones. Use this article as a starting point for how to celebrate Juneteenth with your family.
Learn how to talk about antiracism with your kids in my new book Raising Antiracist Children.
How to Celebrate Juneteenth: 12 Family-Friendly Activities
1. Learn the History
The above history of Juneteenth is just a starting point. A great way to celebrate Juneteenth is to learn about the history of slavery in the U.S.—especially the perspectives and information omitted from traditional education. Here are a few ways to learn more about Juneteenth:
- Start By Watching: This Is Why Juneteenth Is Important for America
- Read any or all of these 18 Books to Celebrate Juneteenth With
- Watch the documentary 13th by filmmaker Ava DuVernay
- Learn about the Grandmother of Juneteenth
2. Attend Juneteenth Events in Your Community
Odds are, there are some community celebrations of Juneteenth that you can attend. Most of the time, these are family-friendly street fairs or festivals, filled with local Black vendors and great food.
3. Host a Backyard BBQ
Juneteenth is an excellent opportunity to spend quality time with your neighbors. Consider setting up a grill, turning on some tunes by Black artists, and serving up a storm of mouthwatering, delicious Southern classics. Because the official color for Juneteenth is red, you could focus on serving red foods. If you’re non-Black, remember to center Black history and antiracist activism during your BBQ event. And definitely say no to cultural appropriation.
4. Support Black-Owned Businesses
If you’re looking for a day off from kitchen duties, consider ordering from a Black-owned restaurant. Or spend part of the day shopping at local Black-owned businesses. Invest in new clothes, housewares, jewelry, you name it—celebrate Black liberation with your purchasing power.
5. Teach Your Children the Truth
- Read children’s books like Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper or Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth by Alice Faye Duncan
- Watch “155th Anniversary of Juneteenth” by illustrated by Los Angeles-based guest artist Loveis Wise and narrated by actor and activist LeVar Burton
- Use this Juneteenth resource for young children created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture
6. Plan a Juneteenth Meal With Your Family
Juneteenth celebrations are often a community event, but it’s always good to spend intentional time with your family. You could cook traditional Southern foods together, and at the table discuss what you know about Juneteenth and how it has impacted your family. For non-Black families, this is a perfect time to discuss your anti-racist action plan. Here are a few Southern cookbooks by Black chefs:
- What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: The First African-American Cookbook from 1881 by Abby Fisher
- The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
- Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing by Jerrelle Guy
7. Donate to Black-Owned Nonprofit Organizations
Consider donating to nonprofit organizations that advocate for Black people. Funding an organization that you care about can help ensure that it can continue to do the work to make freedom a reality for Black people in the U.S. Here are some great organizations to donate to:
- Nia Cultural Center located on Galveston Island, Texas
- Project Row Houses located in Houston, Texas
- Buffalo Soldiers Museum located in Houston, Texas
- Black Outside located in San Antonio, Texas
8. Understand and Support Reparations
Juneteenth is a celebration, not reconciliation. Black people are still owed acknowledgment, compensation, restitution, and rehabilitation for the hundreds of years of enslavement and continued discrimination. “We demand reparations for past and continuing harms. The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done.” M4BL Learn more about supporting reparations by visiting The Movement for Black Lives.
9. Read Black Stories All Month
Queue up your summer reading list with Black authors and start reading this month! Here are a few suggestions for the adults: Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, Roxanne Gay, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin. And some suggestions for the kids: Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Giovanni, Walter Dean Myers, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Andrea Davis Pinkney.
The works of Black American authors have—and continue to—make literary history. While we celebrate Black freedom, let’s also celebrate Black accomplishments. Remember that kids learn often learn by watching, and that includes who and what you read.
10. Commit to Antiracism
While Juneteenth represents the ending of the Civil War and a new era, white supremacy and institutionalized racism are alive and continue to impact People of the Global Majority in the U.S. worldwide. Commit to the practice of antiracism—embark on a journey to untangle the racism you inherited in school and at home and take real, accountable steps to lead an antiracist life.
11. Watch Our Favorite TV Episode about Juneteenth:
Pop some popcorn and cozy up to watch our favorite Juneteenth episode. The Johnsons Celebrate Juneteenth – Black-ish Season 4 Premiere.
12. Ask Your Children
Tell the story of Juneteenth to your children and ask them how they would like to honor and celebrate the holiday.
Bonus Activities for the Classroom
13. Educators, Learn the History of Juneteenth
14. Use Primary Sources
Introduce your learners to primary sources about the Civil War. Teach them that primary sources are documents, images, or artifacts that provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a historical topic. Start by reviewing the original Emancipation Proclamation.
Ask The Hard Questions
It can be daunting to “get it right” and that’s why we ask questions. When you want to celebrate Juneteenth, you’re already on the right track to honoring the memory of those who were enslaved. It is ultimately a day to deepen your understanding of this country’s history, and your connection with modern-day race issues and remnants of slavery. As long as you stay connected, curious, and dedicated to doing better, you can help the cause. I’m rooting for you!