Juneteenth 2021: What the Holiday Represents and How to Celebrate

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Happy Juneteenth! This holiday -- named for and celebrated on June 19 -- commemorates the true ending of slavery in the United States. (You'll note, it is not Jan. 1, the date of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. More on that below.) From its celebratory roots in churches across Texas to the impassioned protests of the last year, Juneteenth has come a long way and this year, it has finally gotten recognition as an official holiday. 

Just days ahead of this year's celebration, after an unanimous vote, the House passed legislation that establishes June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, with President Joe Biden signing the bill into law on June 17, 2021, recognizing Juneteenth as an official federal holiday.

This year's Juneteenth will get high-profile recognition via Juneteenth: Together We Triumph – A ‘Soul of a Nation’ Special Event airing on ABC and hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. The special will include performances by Jimmie Allen, Chloe Bailey (of Chloe x Halle) and Leon Bridges. Along with a series of specials, shows and performances, this year's Juneteenth National Independence Day will see a return to in-person celebrations that were put on pause due to the pandemic. But more than a century after the final enslaved people were freed, too many still don't know why celebrating June 19 is important -- and why America still has much to grapple with its legacy.

Why June 19?

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, declaring "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State... shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." It wouldn't be until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and any enslaved people were freed by executive order.

"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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor," Granger's proclamation read. "The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

Juneteenth This Year

Rear View of Truck carrying African Americans during Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, Alvin C. Krupnick Co., 1921.
Universal HIstory Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In addition to Juneteenth making its mark for the first time as an official U.S. holiday, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre -- one of the single worst acts of racial violence in history which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Several documentaries have been released in 2021 to mark the occasion, including Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, executive produced by NBA star Russell Westbrook and directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Peabody Award winner Marco Williams. The documentary focuses on a specific period, from the birth of Black Wall Street to its catastrophic downfall over two bloody days and then the fallout and eventual reconstruction.

Several other podcasts and docuseries have premiered in the last few months including the new six-part podcast series Blindspot: Tulsa BurningRise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer on National Geographic and Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten on PBS.

In Pop Culture

TV Shows

"Juneteenth," Black-ish (ABC) and "Still... Because of Slavery," #blackAF (Netflix)

Through Black-ish and #blackAF, Kenya Barris has put the Black experience at the center of two modern family comedies. In Black-ish's season 4 premiere, "Juneteenth," Barris took inspiration from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to shine a light on the lack of Black holidays. "There’s no holds barred here. We are full-on Broadway-ing it," star Tracee Ellis Ross told ET.

Three years later, Juneteenth appears in #blackAF, which doubles down on the ideas he presented in Black-ish by offering a brief history lesson on the date's significance and showing how Barris' onscreen family gathers in honor of June 19.

"Juneteenth," Atlanta (FX)

Created by and starring Donald Glover, the acclaimed FX comedy blends surreal humor with stark reality to hold a mirror up to the human condition. Season 1 episode "Juneteenth" (written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Janicza Bravo) sees Earn (Glover) and Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) attend a pretentious Juneteenth-themed party thrown by an affluent biracial couple, where the cocktail list includes drinks like Frozen Freedom Margarita and Plantation Master Poison.

Juneteenth Jamboree (PBS)

Juneteenth Jamboree is an ongoing PBS series that examines the holiday's significance in Black culture. Each 30-minute episode delves into various elements that have influenced Juneteenth over its 100-plus-year history, including Texas’ own African American heritage, the heroes who emerged from it and life on the frontier following the Civil War.

Movies

Miss Juneteenth

Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples drew on her own childhood in Galveston to shape the world of Miss Juneteenth, about former pageant queen turned single mom Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) as she struggles to make ends meet and uplift her daughter to fulfill her dream deferred.

"The story is largely about a woman, a family, trying to survive and figure out how they're going to relate to each other," Beharie told ET about the film, which debuts on demand on June 19. "It's about the future, and it's about the community and the values that they have and who is valued and who isn't. What are the codes of conduct? Who gets discarded and why?"

Books

Juneteenth: A Novel, by Ralph Ellison

The Invisible Man author's second novel was published in 1999, five years after his death. Set in the 1950s, Juneteenth tells the story of a race-baiting senator, Adam Sunraider, who recalls his childhood spent with a Black con man turned reverend who took him in and raised him in the church. The celebration of Juneteenth, it turns out, marked Sunraider's initial departure point both physically and spiritually -- he dismissed it as "the celebration of a gaudy illusion" -- but all these years later, does he regret leaving it behind?

Juneteenth Specials

Juneteenth: Together We Triumph – A ‘Soul of a Nation’ Special Event

On Friday the 18th, ABC will broadcast Juneteenth: Together We Triumph – A ‘Soul of a Nation’ Special Event. The two-hour ABC News special will be hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. will include performances by Jimmie Allen, Chloe Bailey (of Chloe x Halle) and Leon Bridges. Co-anchor Michael Strahan sat down for a one-on-one interview with former President Barack Obama about race, resilience and Obama’s book, A Promised Land. The special will also include stories by ABC News anchors and correspondents.

Friday Night Vibes

TBS will kick off the weekend with the premiere of its new Friday Night Vibes block. Friday Night Vibes is a new 52-week movie showcase featuring diverse voices. Snoop Dogg joins host Tiffany Haddish and co-host Deon Cole as their first in-studio guest. The premiere block is a double feature of Creed and Creed 2 as well as a discussion on the origins of Juneteenth. On Saturday, TBS will air a Juneteenth Movie Marathon starting at noon ET with the Creed films followed by Black Panther at 5 p.m. ET. Friday Night Vibes debuts on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT.

CBS Sunday Night Movie - Selma

Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated film Selma will make its broadcast debut the weekend of Juneteenth as the “CBS Sunday Night Movie.” Selma chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on a campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of brutal opposition. The film will be broadcast June 20 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

How to Help

Juneteenth is widely celebrated with events where people share good food while discussing the future of the community. With many social distancing mandates and other restrictions still being lifted across the country in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's festivities are starting to return with festivals, protests and celebrations taking place in person in cities around the country including San Antonio, Las Vegas, Chicago and many more.

But if you're hesitant about getting out there or getting together with friends and family is not an option, there are a number of ways to honor Juneteenth this year, including via donation to a nonprofit such as the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund or The Bail Project, as well as to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU.

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