The Significance and Origins of Juneteenth: A Reflection on African American Emancipation and Cultural Traditions in the United States

Jun 23, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Piece Quilt by Elizabeth Salter Smith circa 1870. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Juneteenth, a contraction of “June” and “nineteenth, is celebrated on June 19th annually and carries immense significance within African American communities. The yearly celebration and national holiday formally recognizes African American freedom and liberation after the unjust forced enslavement of African peoples in the United States.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that enslaved individuals in Confederate states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” However, its enforcement in the Confederate South was inconsistent due to the ongoing Civil War. It would be two more years, in December of 1865, that the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment which formally abolished slavery, would set the wheels of freedom for African Americans in motion.

General Order No. 3, issued by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865. The order was written in a volume beginning on one page and continuing to the next. (RG 393, Part II, Entry 5543, District of Texas, General Orders Issued)

Sadly, due to some stubborn plantation owners’ refusal to accept the changes put forth by the federal government, they decided not to tell their slaves of their freedom and continued to have them work illegally. This suppression of information was not uncommon for many African Americans working in fear and ignorance, clueless about the outcomes of the Civil War. Galveston, Texas, was one of those places. It is also the site of the announcement of General Order No. 3, delivered by Union Army General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1965.

Here you can listen to an audio recording of Wallace Quarterman, a freed slave from the sea islands, talk about Juneteenth with Zora Neale Hurston.

Making Juneteenth A National Holiday

Opal Lee at Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters in Galveston, Texas, May 29, 2021 Photograph by Erika Harrison under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Opal (Flake) Lee, widely recognized as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” is an esteemed retired educator and advocate. Born on October 7, 1926, in Marshall, Texas, Opal Lee is the daughter of Otis Flake and Mattie Broadus. During her childhood, tragedy struck when their family residence succumbed to a fire, compelling her father to depart in search of employment and causing a prolonged absence. Subsequently, when Opal Lee was ten years old, her mother relocated the family to Fort Worth. It was in Fort Worth that Opal Lee attended Cooper Street Elementary School. Upon learning of their presence in Fort Worth, Otis Flake joined his family. In an unfortunate turn of events, Mattie Broadus suffered an accident on a city bus, resulting in a legal settlement. The family utilized the settlement to acquire a property at 940 East Annie Street, located in the southern region of Fort Worth, in June 1939. Notably, as the first African American family to reside in the neighborhood, their presence stirred a hostile reaction, culminating in a distressing incident on June 19, 1939, when an enraged mob of 500 white residents set fire to their home.

During the 1970s Lee became active in her community and with the preservation of local African American history, which led to the establishment of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, in 1977. From its inception the Tarrant County Black Historical Society organized the annual Juneteenth celebrations. Multitudes, as if summoned by ancestral whispers, converged upon that hallowed ground in remembrance of their foremothers and fathers . Each years the celebration drew thousands of attendees to Sycamore Park. For Lee, part of the celebration would include her waking to two miles–a symbol of the two years it took for liberation to reach Galveston, Texas.

At the young age of 89, Lee was determined to do more for Juneteenth. In 2016, she embarked on a transformative pilgrimage from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC. During the 1,360-mile journey, Lee gathered 1.5 million signatures in support of making Juneteenth a national holiday when she arrived in Washington in January the following year. Her determination paid off when she witnessed President Joe Biden signing the bill on June 17, 2021, making it federal law.

This recognition reflects a growing awareness of African Americans’ historical and ongoing struggles and the significance of remembering and celebrating emancipation. It’s also a reminder how person can do a small thing and change the course of history.
Symbolically Juneteenth establishes new traditions for African Americans. The holiday is a personal one that connects African Americans to their past while celebrating the achievements and cultural traditions that mark their African roots and their emancipation in America.

This Juneteenth, I spent time with my family eating steamed Alaskan Crab legs and a side of Jollof Rice, which has a bright red color. It is very common for African Americans to eat red foods during this celebration. I’ve listed some recipes below and an example of a Freedom Quilt craft to make with your friends and family.

Mocktail: Red Berry Juneteenth Punch
• 2 cups of mixed red berries (strawberries, raspberries, cherries)
• 1 cup of cranberry juice
• 1 cup of pomegranate juice
• 2 tablespoons of honey or agave syrup
• 1 liter of ginger ale or club soda
• Ice cubes
• Fresh mint for garnish
• Lemon slices for garnish
• Additional berries for garnish

  1. In a blender, combine the mixed red berries, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, and honey or agave syrup. Blend until smooth.
  2. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a large pitcher to remove the seeds.
  3. Just before serving, add ice cubes to the pitcher, and top off with ginger ale or club soda.
  4. Stir gently to combine.
  5. Serve in glasses garnished with a sprig of mint, a slice of lemon, and a few berries.
    This mocktail is not only refreshing but also pays homage to Juneteenth with its vibrant red color symbolizing perseverance and freedom.

Recipe: Traditional Southern Fried Chicken
• 4 lbs chicken pieces (legs, thighs, and breasts)
• 2 cups buttermilk
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• 1 tablespoon garlic powder
• 1 tablespoon onion powder
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• Vegetable oil for frying

  1. In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. Add the chicken pieces and ensure they are submerged in the buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  2. In another large bowl, mix the flour, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, remaining salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  3. Heat about an inch of vegetable oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat.
  4. Remove the chicken pieces from the buttermilk, allowing the excess to drip off. Dredge each piece in the flour mixture, ensuring it is well coated.
  5. Carefully place the chicken pieces in the hot oil and fry until they are golden brown and cooked through, about 15-20 minutes, turning them occasionally. The internal temperature should reach 165°F (74°C).
  6. Place the fried chicken on a wire rack set over a baking sheet to drain excess oil.
  7. Serve hot, ideally with traditional sides such as collard greens, cornbread, and red beans.

Kilburn, B. W. , Publisher, Kilburn, B. W, photographer. Quilt exhibit, interior of Negro building, Atlanta Exposition. Atlanta Georgia, ca. 1896. Littleton, N.H.: Photographed and Published by B. W. Kilburn. Photograph.

Activity: Juneteenth Freedom Quilt Making
Quilt-making has a rich history in African American culture, often used as a means for storytelling and expression. Making a Juneteenth Freedom Quilt can be a collective and educational activity.
• Fabric squares (various colors with an emphasis on red)
• Fabric markers or fabric paint
• Needles and thread
• Scissors
• Rulers
• Batting
• Iron

  1. Before starting the activity, discuss the significance of Juneteenth and how quilts were used historically by African Americans for storytelling and coded communication.
  2. Give each participant a fabric square. Ask them to design their square with a pattern or image that they feel represents freedom, heritage, or Juneteenth. They can use fabric markers or fabric paint.
  3. Once the squares are completed and dried, arrange them in a pattern that will become the quilt.
  4. Sew the squares together. Place the batting in between the quilt top and another piece of fabric for the backing. Sew all the layers together.
  5. Encourage participants to iron their sections of the quilt for a finished look.
  6. As a group, discuss the designs and what they represent, and reflect on the collective art piece that was created.
    This quilt can be displayed annually during Juneteenth celebrations as a symbol of unity, freedom, and cultural heritage.