10 Ways to Celebrate and Commemorate Juneteenth in 2023
Honor the holiday's true meaning with a Juneteenth celebration that focuses on reflection, education and the joy of liberation
Get ready for a Juneteenth celebration
On Monday, June 19, 2023, you can officially wish your friends, family and colleagues a happy Juneteenth. The day, which was signed into law as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden in June 2021, is pregnant with meaning, not only for African Americans but also for Blacks displaced globally by the diaspora. But before you decide how to celebrate Juneteenth, make sure you know why we commemorate the important day.
So, what is Juneteenth? It was first celebrated on June 19, 1866, on the anniversary of the day when federal troops galloped into Galveston, Texas, with the news that slaves had been freed by decree of the Emancipation Proclamation—a whole two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the bill—sparking the emancipation of an estimated 250,000 remaining slaves. With the freedom of about 4 million slaves a part of America’s painful history, it is a day that deserves equal parts reflection and spirited celebration.
And while corporate America may be doing its best to commercialize Juneteenth, celebrants know there’s more to the holiday than themed products at chain retailers. There are Juneteenth quotes that inspire a new generation and Juneteenth flags that hearken back to a significant moment in history. And there are opportunities for education on a wide range of topics, from what it means to be an ally to how institutional racism inhibits equality. Read on to learn how to celebrate Juneteenth this year.
How is Juneteenth traditionally celebrated?
The very first Juneteenth took place in 1866, a year after the slaves were finally freed. It was known as Jubilee Day, and as its name suggests, there was plenty of jubilation to be found. A typical Juneteenth celebration consisted of barbecues and music, and plenty of prayer and worship among freed Blacks who gathered to mark the occasion.
As Black people traveled throughout America, they took the tradition of the celebration with them. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated across the country with cookouts, neighborhood get-togethers, fairs, parades, and more. It’s a day that recognizes Black power, suffering, and resilience through festivities that highlight Black joy, creativity, and community.
Eat, drink and be merry
Food and drinks are central to Juneteenth celebrations. And carnivores will rejoice: Savory meats like ribs, chicken, and brisket slathered in barbecue sauce—an ode to those early Juneteenth barbecues—are often on the menu.
You’ll notice a lot of color on your table too. Red foods are part and parcel of Juneteenth celebrations. As historians note, slaves were often fed foods that were muted in color and poor in quality, so red foods were prized for being a very special treat. According to culinary historian Michael Twitty, red symbolized spiritual power and transformation. Food scholar Adrian Miller, in discussion with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, points to two red drinks (one from cola nuts, the other from hibiscus flowers) that traveled from West Africa to America via the slave trade and may have played a part in the selection of red drinks for Juneteenth.
Other historians say the red-food tradition evolved to commemorate slaves’ bloodshed. Like the crimson hues of the barbecue sauce–covered proteins, red sweets like strawberries, strawberry soda, hibiscus tea, Kool-Aid and red velvet cake are commonplace.
Visit a Black history museum
Exploring a Black history–centered museum is a perfect way to commemorate Juneteenth and learn about important concepts, such as the Civil Rights Movement and anti-racism today. There are an estimated 109 Black history museums in America today, including The Studio Museum in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Here’s how to celebrate Juneteenth on a budget: Head to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which offers free timed-entry passes. Can’t make it there? You can download the free app, which lets you tour the museum and explore the stories behind the exhibits from the comfort of your couch.
Wondering how to celebrate Juneteenth with children? Creating arts and crafts is a fun way for all ages to get into the Juneteenth spirit. Maybe you and your little Kara Walker or Romare Bearden (two prominent African American artists) can make a rendition of the red, white, and blue Juneteenth flag. You can also show your pride in being Black by painting pictures that use a myriad of browns and dark browns to illustrate the beauty of Black skin.
Or perhaps you’d like to turn words into art by emblazoning your canvas with anti-racism quotes and wisdom from history’s greats, like these poignant words from Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
Learn the history
As the topic of critical race theory continues to spark furious debate across America, one thing is for certain: Much of the truth of America’s ugly history with race and racism is absent from classrooms from sea to shining sea. (In fact, you may have never learned about these amazing African Americans and their contribution to American history.)
Flip that fact on its head and teach yourself. Get thee to your nearest Black-owned bookstore to pick up books by Black authors, books that crack open America’s dark history, books about race relations in America and books that explore the steps the country needs to take in the fight for equality. Or listen to one of these smart podcasts about race.
Support Black-owned businesses
Small and medium-size businesses are no doubt feeling the pinch of inflation. And many of them are owned by Black people. Give back while treating yourself. (And, no, you don’t have to break the bank.) You can make a day of it by visiting a Black-owned restaurant, then dropping in to Black-owned businesses, where you can shop till you drop—with a purpose.
Party it up at a Juneteenth celebration
Some Black Americans don’t celebrate the 4th of July, opting instead to celebrate Juneteenth as a day of independence and liberation. And often that means stopping by a festival, parade or educational event. Check your local newspaper or do a Google search of nearby Juneteenth parties. Chances are, you’ll find lots of events with which to pack your calendar on and around June 19.
And there’s plenty to celebrate in Galveston, Texas, where it all began. You can experience the Juneteenth festival, freedom walk tour, parade, gala and tons of other events, including an annual reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Donate to Black-focused causes
Slavery is over; racial unrest and injustice, however, are absolutely not. There are countless organizations lending their voices to the betterment of Black people from coast to coast. You can donate to any organization on this list of Black Lives Matter nonprofits that are making a difference. Here are just a few worthy of your hard-earned dollars:
Binge-watch films about Black history
From Roots to 12 Years a Slave, there’s no shortage of slavery-era depictions to be found on streaming services. But celebrating Juneteenth through cinema shouldn’t be limited to the slave trade. There are plenty of modern-day flicks that zero in on the struggles faced and often overcome by Black people in America. Check out this list of Black History movies to watch on Juneteenth—and all year long.
Join Opal’s Walk
Opal Lee, 96, is a longtime civil rights activist who advocated for years to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. In fact, she’s known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” Since June 19, 2016, Lee has been honoring the holiday with Opal’s Walk for Freedom, a 2.5-mile walk commemorating the 2.5 years it took for the slaves to be freed after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the walk is held virtually and in person by teams who continue to walk in Opal’s honor and alongside her. Join up, then go a step beyond and learn the small ways you can fight racism daily.
Simply say, “Happy Juneteenth”
Remember, there is no singular way to celebrate Juneteenth (ask Google how to celebrate Juneteenth, and it’ll return 62.5 million results!), but proudly declaring the day is a good start. Spreading the news and the joy of Juneteenth is just one of many ways to make sure the sacrifices and triumphs of African Americans will never be forgotten. From there, keep learning how you can make a difference in the fight against racism.
- Afroculinaria: “Terroir Noire: African American Foodways in Slavery, Texas”
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Resilience”
- WBUR: “Celebrating Juneteenth: The History Behind the Holiday”