As a family, we looked forward each summer to celebrating lots of things with barbecues in our backyard — Father’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day — but Juneteenth wasn’t on the list.
It wasn’t that we were opposed to the idea. But we lived in Washington, D.C., and back then the holiday hadn’t taken off like it has recently. In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult and living in Philly that I first heard about parades and events commemorating June 19, 1865, the date when enslaved Africans in Texas were freed two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
I shared this recently with Tamala Edwards, a co-anchor on 6ABC, who hails from Houston, and had an entirely different experience. Not only did she grow up well aware of the rich history and tradition surrounding Juneteenth — including eating something red and gathering with relatives — but her late uncle helped pass legislation in 1979 that made it an official state holiday in Texas.
“Every year he would have a gospel brunch and he would hold events and a whole weekend around Juneteenth,” Edwards recalled. “And so, in town, he was known as Mr. Juneteenth.”
Thanks to Edwards’ uncle, Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday.
These days, most states recognize Juneteenth but interest in the observance really picked up after last year’s killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Businesses eager to appear racially inclusive began offering employees a day off. Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order declaring Juneteenth a city holiday.
But the real kicker came this week when Congress passed a bill that will make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday and now that old tradition that formerly enslaved people used to celebrate quietly for fear of rankling their former owners will become a national holiday. (In Houston, newly freed people purchased 10 acres to create Emancipation Park expressly for that reason.)
Given all the negative pushback about teaching critical race theory and systemic racism and foot-dragging over passing comprehensive voting rights legislation, the timing is galling. But that won’t stop me from doing a little happy dance.
Juneteenth is as American of a holiday as you can get because it celebrates that this is a country that is trying to move on from its ugly past.
“It’s a reminder that that promise is genuine,” Edwards said. “It can be an ugly struggle, but it is the thing that gives hope to all that we will do the right thing. Everyone should show up to celebrate it. ‘You bring the potato salad. You bring the red drink. You bring the barbecue. I’ve got the collard greens.’ ”
Edwards, who comes from a long line of Texans, is fairly certain her ancestors were among those in the crowd that fateful day in 1865 when Union soldiers notified enslaved Black people in Galveston that they had been freed. Come Saturday, Edwards will no doubt think of them as well as her uncle, the late Al Edwards, who died in 2020 at age 83.
“He was glad to see other people pick up the mantle,” Edwards said. “I don’t think we saw that it was going to move as far and as fast, and I see a great synergy with George Floyd. George Floyd was from Houston. He grew up in the Cuney Homes where my grandmother lived. He went to the same high school that she went to and that my brother went to. They were on the same basketball team. They knew each other. To me, it’s kind of synergy that the sacrifice that George went through left people looking for some way to mark the moment, for some way to say, ‘We’ve got to talk about this and we need to tell these stories and we need to learn more.’ … So, it’s not shocking to me that for many people it will be the first year that they [celebrate] it.”
I’ll be one of them.