What Juneteenth Means to Me

By Stephanie Tellis

Last year, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, creating a federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of American chattel slavery. The holiday marks June 19,1865, when federal troops under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, which was two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed to free those enslaved in the “rebellious states” of the Confederacy and two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia.

Granger, who fought for the Union, announced that the Civil War was over and the Union had won. He then read aloud General Order No. 3, which stated, “The people 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, become that between employer and hired labor.”

This announcement meant the immediate freedom of roughly 250,000 people who were still being forcibly enslaved in Texas. Those who were freed and their descendants have gathered every June 19th since 1866 to celebrate the ending of their legal bondage.

While I cannot currently trace my lineage to any specific person who was freed on June 19th, I am the descendent of enslaved people. My great-great-grandfather was held in bondage in Arkansas until the age of 13. So, I grew up celebrating Juneteenth alongside the direct descents of those who were freed over 150 years ago. I also grew up in a very Afro-centric home: the pre-school I attended had daily call and response chants that affirmed my Blackness; the church I worshipped in was an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church, the first African-American denomination organized in the United States; and my summers were spent in one of the first Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools, a six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment program with origins in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964.

I was privileged to grow up in an environment where my history was taught, my culture celebrated, and my skin adored. So, when it came time for the annual Juneteenth festivities, I felt free to truly celebrate. I knew the life that I lived would have been almost impossible for my ancestors—who endured the horrors of the middle passage, slavery, and Jim Crow—to imagine.

Prior to becoming a national holiday, Juneteenth was a celebration of freedom that many Americans were unaware of. In the aftermath of the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and a 2020 campaign rally then-President Donald Trump had planned to hold on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, public awareness of the day skyrocketed, which bolstered the efforts already underway to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

At the heart of Juneteenth is the recognition that the lives of those enslaved Africans and African Americans who endured and survived the unspeakable horrors of chattel slavery mattered. Their hopes that things would be better for their children and their children’s children still matter. Juneteenth remains a critical reminder of the importance of picking up the torch and carrying forward the fight for racial equity and justice in a nation built on the foundations of white supremacy, colonization, genocide, and human trafficking. It is about deconstructing systemic inequities so that my children and my children’s children and my great-great-grandchild can live a life that I cannot even imagine.

As Juneteenth celebrations spread across the country, and as corporations rush to align themselves with this day of freedom, it is my hope that the meaning of this sacred day doesn’t get lost to commercialization and capitalism.

In his proclamation on the observance of Juneteenth Day, President Biden noted that Juneteenth is “A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country … it is a day that also reminds us of our incredible capacity to heal, hope, and emerge from our darkest moments with purpose and resolve.”