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What is Juneteenth? How to Celebrate and What to Eat

Black Southerners have celebrated Juneteenth since the mid-to-late 1800s, but the holiday has gained more recognition in recent years, especially in the wake of nationwide protests over police brutality.

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, more Americans are interested in celebrating Juneteenth. The annual holiday marks the date (June 19, 1865) when hundreds of thousands of enslaved Black men and women in Texas finally learned they were free following the Civil War.

Like most any holiday, Juneteenth also has a rich history of amazing foods. Because it's during summertime, it means delicious cookouts and BBQ food.

To not just appropriate a holiday, let's take a moment to delve into a brief history of Juneteenth, why it's important to celebrate, and some common foods to make on this historic day.

The History of Juneteenth

Juneteenth marks a specific date in U.S. history: June 19, 1865. It was about two months after the Confederacy had surrendered to end the Civil War and more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's proclamation, of course, outlawed slavery.

About 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas didn't hear the news that slavery had ended until June 19, 1865. On that day, Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform these enslaved people about the Emancipation Proclamation and that the Civil War was over.

Even after Granger's arrival that day, the ex-Confederate mayor of Galveston disregarded the order, allowing plantation owners to decide for themselves when to tell their unlawfully held Black workers. As a result, many of them waited until the end of the harvesting season.

Of course, the now-freed Blacks were then subjected to brutal treatment during the Reconstruction Era. The former Confederate states had little incentive or interest in recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday. New Jim Crow laws also forced many freed Blacks to celebrate in secret.

In 1872, about seven years after Granger's arrival in Galveston, a group of Black ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Texas and named it Emancipation Park. It became a safe place for Black communities to celebrate Juneteenth, and it marked the resurgence of the holiday.

Why it's Important to Celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth has always mattered, and it has been celebrated for decades. Today, many celebrations occur among families, even if you just say an extra prayer before your meal. Larger celebrations have also become more common, like parades, festivals, and Kabbalat Shabbat services in cities like Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

During last year's nationwide racial reckoning, many companies also made Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employees. And, of course, you don't have to identify as Black to celebrate. Juneteenth is an American holiday, and the date in 1865 marks an important milestone in U.S. history.

Juneteenth celebrations feel even more important now in the wake of the events of 2020 – and for a good reason. Juneteenth is a time to celebrate the fight for racial justice and for people of all races and creeds to reflect on the progress of that fight and the challenges that still remain.

How to Celebrate Juneteenth

Ultimately, there's no one way to celebrate Juneteenth. Some people have been celebrating the holiday their whole lives, while it may be new to others. The most important thing is to acknowledge the historic nature of the day.

Some fun ways to celebrate Juneteenth include:

  • Hosting a cookout. Food is a big part of Juneteenth. And with the holiday being right at the beginning of summertime, it's an excellent time for a cookout with family and friends.

  • Learn about the history. More people are aware of Juneteenth nowadays, but not everyone knows the whole story. Learn more about the holiday and spread the word, perhaps on social media or with friends and family.

  • Support Black-owned businesses and organizations. A tangible way to celebrate is to support businesses owned by African-Americans and organizations supporting the Black community.

  • Attend a Juneteenth event. Seek out a local parade, festival, or Shabbat where people are gathering to celebrate. There will be numerous events in Philadelphia (where we live), including one at City Hall and the Juneteenth Freedom Day March. We'd like to suggest checking out the Second Annual Kabbalat Shabbat at 5 pm Eastern on Friday evening, June 18. However, please note some events are for Blacks & People of Color only - please be respectful of that if you do not fit into that category.

  • Educate yourself about racism and work towards becoming an anti-racist. Last but not least, consider taking some quiet time to educate yourself and reflect on anti-racism and the fight for equality and racial justice in America. Some excellent recent books about anti-racism include: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi and Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad. (Please note the links for these books are from Harriet's Bookshop, a Black-owned bookstore in Philadelphia. Please feel free to purchase these books from a local-to-you Black-owned bookstore.)

Foods Associated with Juneteenth

Southern Jewish Kitchens is a food blog, after all, so we're, of course, going to discuss all the delicious Juneteenth-associated foods. And there are a lot!

Red foods and drinks are the most prominent type associated with Juneteenth; the historical significance goes back to the time of Black enslavement. Around the time Juneteenth was first celebrated, many of the common foods of the day were green, white, or brown. Therefore, vibrant delicacies with the color red were exciting to eat for a holiday. The red color in foods and drinks also symbolizes the blood of Black Americans' ancestors, who should never be forgotten. This is similar to how we remember our ancestors who suffered in Egypt at the Passover Seder.

Examples of red foods and drinks you could make/have include watermelon, red beans and rice, red velvet cake, strawberry sodas, and hibiscus tea.

BBQ food is also a prominent menu item in Juneteenth celebrations. For side dishes, "prosperity meals" are great, which signify celebrating good luck and wishing for the best. These side dishes can include corn, cornbread, black-eyed peas, collard greens, yams, and sweet potatoes.

While all these foods are great, remember it's totally okay to develop your own food tradition. That includes making sure your menu is kosher, vegan, or vegetarian-friendly. Whatever works!

Today, for Shabbat, I'm happy to make Rabbi Sandra Lawson's favorite Southern meal for Juneteenth: black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread. I've also added a little iced hibiscus tea, baked chicken, and a strawberry dump cake to go with it. Check out the recipes by clicking the links on them.

Have fun with your meal prep for this great holiday and make foods that are meaningful to you to help you remember why we celebrate Juneteenth.

Resources for learning more about Juneteenth

Written by Rachel Forth & Nick Pipitone

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