Why Juneteenth Feels Different This Year

"It sometimes feels like we have very little to celebrate even though we are 'free.'"

Since 1865, Black people have acknowledged June 19th, also known as Juneteenth, as an important celebration of the day that slavery officially ended in the United States. Because the last slaves in America were freed in Galveston, Texas, the holiday has always had particular importance in the state, though Black people have been known to celebrate in other parts of the country as well. This year, the holiday has taken on a greater national importance for a number of reasons.


As Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death have put Black issues into the national spotlight, Juneteenth has entered the conversation more than usual. This year many companies, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and Spotify, are allowing their employees to take the day off with pay on June 19th. Some are deeming the holiday a “day of learning” wherein non-Black employees should spend the day learning more about Black history in America. Certain states like Virginia are also pushing to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. On June 12th, Donald Trump announced that he would be having his first rally since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic on the 19th, though he later rescheduled the rally for the 20th out of “respect” for the holiday after there was outrage from the Black community. Many still feel that the President’s decision to hold a rally for his majority-white supporters in Tulsa, where one of the worst racial massacres occurred in 1921, and in the midst of such volatile racial unrest in this country, is disrespectful to the Black community and the historical importance of the holiday.

“The significance of Juneteenth has always been meaningful in the Black community, but in the face of the continuous onslaught of racial incidents, police brutality and killings, and hate crimes, we’re witnessing a renewed effort to uplift holidays that bring attention to the real history of this country,” Marc Banks, the National Press Secretary at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told VICE. “This year and every year, we should acknowledge the sobering truth of what Juneteenth signifies and mark the occasion on a federal level. One thing is clear; the awakening taking place in the U.S. right now and around the world amplifies the truth about this country and the ills of its past.”


While many Black people are excited that more people are becoming aware of the significance of Juneteenth, others feel that company-wide or even statewide efforts to acknowledge the holiday have been insufficient or otherwise don’t feel sincere. “It feels different seeing large companies declare Juneteenth a paid holiday and having non-Texans celebrate it,” said Chloe, a resident of Houston, Texas. “I’m not sure if they understand the significance of the day to Texans, or even understand how specific it is. I hope companies look into helping charities in Houston, such as Project Row Houses or The Houston Museum of African American Culture before they pat themselves on the back after adding just one day of paid time off.”

We talked to people about why Juneteenth feels different this year and how they plan on acknowledging the day.

Bryce Lacy, 22, Southern Brazoria County, Texas


Growing up in Southern Brazoria County, neighboring Galveston, Texas, the last place to free its slaves, Juneteenth has been a part of my life since I was a child. Every year, my family would attend the Juneteenth parade in Angleton to celebrate the holiday, which commemorates the ending of slavery in Texas. The parade would end with a cookout at the park, and kids would be crowned as Mr. and Mrs. Juneteenth. I remember running around the park with my cousins, playing basketball, eating too much, the adults in the shade playing bingo. I look at what happened in Tulsa as one of the more horrific acts white people in this country have committed. I feel Donald Trump selected this location to honor the people who committed the act of killing the citizens and burning down the city. Too often, we call these head nods to white supremacists “trolling” or chalk it up to ignorance of the history. I believe Donald Trump is well aware of the history and wants to make this rally a remembrance of those white people who burned down Black Wall Street. They’ve moved the rally to the 20th, but I believe their intent is still the same. As Juneteenth comes up, I just want to reiterate something that has been said time and time again. As we celebrate on this holiday the progress we’ve made, and remember the Black lives that have been taken by the police in the last few months, it’s essential that in our continued fight we remember and fight for the lives of Black trans women.


Ashleigh Strange, 32, Allentown, PA


Last year I didn't outwardly celebrate Juneteenth, and I never really have. This year, my organization [Lehigh Valley Stands Up] is doing a weekend of actions with Movement for Black Lives in the area. Friday, we are hosting a reparations board where black folks can insert their digital pay info for others to pay them at random. It's happening during an African freedom celebration outdoors. Saturday, we're having a digital statewide town hall to defund the police. Sunday, we're pushing for our communities to do a healing moment of writing or drawing cards to Trump telling him to resign. This year feels different because it vacillates so frequently between a celebration and a memorial. The holiday is supposed to be just that, but it sometimes feels like we have very little to celebrate even though we are "free." I am biracial with a black mom and a white dad and when researching my family tree, I can only get as far as the ancestor that had their name changed by a white census taker after the Great Migration. So I know that half of my ancestors were slaves but I don't know anything about them. How am I supposed to celebrate a legacy I know nothing about? So that's why this year, I'm excited to be part of something bigger, where we're creating our own legacy and freeing each other.

Jada Ford, 22, Louisiana


I have been aware of Juneteenth for about five years and I usually acknowledge it by writing a poem that reflects my current observation of what it means to be Black and “free” in America. I make a point to be celebratory because it is truer than any fourth of July celebration could be. I plan to write and post about Juneteenth per usual. However, this year it feels different because it seems that more people will be aware of it. It almost feels like this is a day where white people and other races have their faces pressed more closely to the glass separating us and them, watching us. Mostly, though, my pride and love for our people has sharpened. But, just like those enslaved found out that they were free, I feel like we now are realizing that freedom with these kind of American conditions is not true freedom. I wish that on Juneteenth, we would receive news like true freedom. And I do not see freedom coming without real justice.


Deana Ayers, 21, Minneapolis, Minnesota


Growing up, my family always talked about Juneteenth as not a holiday, but a shameful reminder that Texas continued the practice of slavery for so long. Based on those conversations I never understood why people would ever want to get together and celebrate something like that. This year I'll be acknowledging Juneteenth with Critical Resistance, an amazing prison industrial complex abolitionist group that I admire. They hosted an event, An Abolitionist Take On Black Liberation Movements, that embodies how I engage with Juneteenth. I see Black joy and celebration as important, but between COVID-19 and the racial uprisings happening across the country, it's so important to focus on liberation. There's a little bit of cooption from Black people who don't have any connection to Texas when it comes to Juneteenth, and I hate to see that. Of course people are allowed to have barbeques, parties, and sales, but at the end of the day, Juneteenth is about Black Texans being deprived of their freedom from slavery and the need for liberation.

Arielle Van-Mballa, 23, Washington, D.C.


As a Cameroonian girl, I grew up not knowing much about Juneteenth because it wasn’t really acknowledged in DMV schools nor my household. When I moved to Houston in high school, I started being taught about Juneteenth in my social studies classes. Since then, I’ve utilized Juneteenth as a day of respect and unification across the board for Black people. So, now I take the time to volunteer for and educate my community on Juneteenth. In our current climate, it’s important to see the vitality of Black people and acknowledge our history in this country, which is what Juneteenth is all about. I want to volunteer this year and do my part but because of this pandemic it's a little harder to cookout and volunteer so I’ll just try to do my best to donate and spread awareness about the holiday and our history. Juneteenth was founded on the basis of freedom for black people. This time is about freedom and I hope people take this fight to the highest points.


Chloe, 27, Houston, Texas


Juneteenth is a widely celebrated holiday within my family and my community in Houston. Previously, we’ve had family reunions, Juneteenth parades, and the dedication of Emancipation Ave and Emancipation Park in 3rd Ward—home of George Floyd and Beyonce—was a huge Juneteenth celebration. At a minimum, my family gets together and barbecues. I do plan on acknowledging the day this year, as I have always done; but it feels different seeing large companies declare it a paid holiday and non-Texans celebrate it. I’m not sure if they understand the significance of the day to Texans, or even understand how specific it is. I hope companies look into helping charities in Houston, such as Project Row Houses or The Houston Museum of African American Culture before they pat themselves on the back after adding just one day of paid time off.

Lauren Henry, 19, Austin, Texas


This year’s Juneteeth celebration is one I think is so necessary and vital for the Black community in this hour, in this state of America. The world is finally coming to terms with our true unadulterated reality and is speaking out against the 401-year systemic oppression of Black individuals. There’s so much work that still needs to be done, but for this year’s 115th anniversary, after these past few years and especially the last month, Black people have been working tirelessly to educate, often leaving us physically, emotionally and mentally depleted. We deserve to take a break and bask in the progression and how far we’ve come because at the end of the day, in the infamous words of Maya Angelou, “Still, I rise.” As for my plans? I hope to honor my ancestors by helping myself and others exercise their right to vote in this year’s Presidential election. It took a lot for Black people and other people of color to be allowed suffrage. I hope to be able to help register as many individuals as possible. We have to make sure we’re following our advocacy with progressive policy. State and local elections are so important, especially in times like these. We’re applying pressure and holding our politicians accountable. If they can’t speak up and help reform the system that was never meant to protect us, we’ll elect someone who will.

Simone, Dallas, Texas

Growing up in Texas, we were taught about Juneteenth in schools but I never realized that it was mostly a Texas holiday until I went to college and talked to folks who had either never heard of the holiday or never celebrated it. About three years ago, I attended a Juneteenth celebration in Fort Worth that was basically a cook-out/block party and it was not only fun but inspiring to be around so many other Black people as we celebrated one of the greatest triumphs our ancestors had. This year I hope to be able to attend a protest if not a celebration of some kind. Although Texas is steadily re-opening, COVID-19 still poses major problems in terms of large gatherings, so I'd want me and my family to remain safe first and foremost. I have heard of potential virtual events floating around and some of my friends from college have organized a Black-only virtual celebration since we've been apart for so long. This year I know that Juneteenth will definitely hit different considering the circumstances we're all in. However, I believe that the protests are actually the perfect way to honor our ancestors since by continuing to fight for our freedom we're making sure that their actions weren't in vain. Protesting is one of the most important Black traditions especially now more than ever.

VICE Media Group is celebrating Juneteenth, the day all enslaved people were emancipated in the U.S., by highlighting stories important to the diaspora across, i-D, Garage, and Refinery 29. Tune in to VICE TV for a full day of television honoring Black voices.