AAmericans are preparing to observe the newest federal holiday on Sunday: June 19, honoring June 19, 1865, when enslaved men and women in Galveston, Texas, found themselves free after the Civil War. Many will get a long weekend that includes Monday June 20th – but, especially given the history of the holiday, finding suitable ways to mark the day is still a work in progress.
Businesses are already learning how not to celebrate June 16th. Walmart apologized for selling pints of Juneteenth-style red velvet ice cream — which some said resembles one sold by a Cincinnati-based black company Creamalicious. The Indianapolis Children’s Museum apologized for serving a ‘May 16’ themed watermelon salad in its cafeteria. June” had sold. And Dollar Tree has faced criticism from Black Twitter users for advertising Paper plates and napkins with Juneteenth motifs.
“You know the song ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over?’ It’s like June 16 erupting everywhere,” says Rev. John Mosley, who has organized June 16 gatherings in New Orleans since the early 1990s.
TIME spoke to black activists who have been organizing June 16 celebrations for decades — including activists campaigning for June 16 to become a national holiday, a goal they achieved in 2021. They all agreed that it will be some time before most Americans know the best ways to honor Juneteenth — and that some commercialization is to be expected. And they said that while summer gatherings with friends and family are perfectly appropriate for June 16, these celebrations should ideally support the black community in some way and include an educational component — whether that’s about the holiday’s origins and its Legacy reflect or participate in working to achieve full racial equality.
“I hope that one day I don’t look up and see July 14 sales like you see July 4 sales, but of course it could happen at some point in the future,” said Deborah Evans, a spokeswoman for the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which sponsors educational programs about June 16 and advocates for June 16 to become a federal holiday. “We have been the stepchild of vacation for years. It was mostly within the black community so we need more education on what Juneteenth means. Right now it’s just a picnic day for a lot of people.”
Cliff Robinson, who runs the website Juneteenth.com, which charts June 16 celebrations nationwide, says people should think of June 16 as another day of remembrance – commemorating Americans who have died serving their country, or as Veterans Day – celebrating those who have served. In response to Walmart’s June 16 ice cream debacle, he says, “We don’t have Veterans Day ice cream, we don’t have Memorial Day ice cream.” He suggests that companies make a special effort to partner with Black entrepreneurs and businesses for the holidays , as June 16 is “all about healing and righting the wrongs of slavery.”
Many June 16 celebrations, Robinson says, involve going to church, so he encourages people to go to a church where the pastor will be speaking about June 16. Churches have always been a haven in the black community. Services on June 16 may include a performance by a gospel choir, and this year the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation is asking places of worship to comply with General Order No. 3, the 1865 document that informed enslaved Texans of their freedom to hang on their doors.
Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, who campaigned on Capitol Hill to make June 16 a national holiday, said proper June 16 gatherings should include reading the “Liberty Documents”: the Emancipation Proclamation; the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; and General Decree No. 3.
The June 16 celebration is relatively new, even to many in the black community. Ronald V. Myers founded the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation more than 25 years ago and brought June 16 to the calendars of 43 states and the District of Columbia. While the day has been commemorated in a variety of ways since 1865, June 16 became more popular following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It gained prominence in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd helped spark racial justice protests across the country, and particularly after former President Trump’s attempt to stop 16 white residents burning down a neighborhood known as Black Wall Street and up killed up to 300 of their black Tulsans.
June 16 activist Opal Lee, 95, from Fort Worth, Texas, who witnessed President Joe Biden signing into law making June 16 a national holiday last year, hopes June 16 will be a day of service. At the very least, she says, she wishes people would do a kind deed for someone.
“I don’t mean that we just get together and celebrate. We have to look out for each other,” says Lee. “I don’t mean that you have to do something great: smile at someone, or watch the kids while their mother goes shopping, or help an old lady like me cross the street.”
But June 16 activists also hope the holiday will encourage people to speak up about what it takes to end racial disparity throughout the year.
“June 16 is not for black people, not for Texas. It’s about freedom for everyone,” says Lee. “As long as we have unemployment, homelessness and healthcare that some can get and some can’t, and climate change – all of these things need to be addressed in order for us to be free.”
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