Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday offers a long-awaited opportunity to reflect on the legacy of slavery. But some educators in the Triangle hope that it won’t become just another day off work and for big sales.
It took more than 150 years to acknowledge, in stature, the significance of the ending of slavery, said Freddie Parker, professor emeritus in the history department at N.C. Central University, a historically Black university in Durham.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Parker said. “Without a doubt in terms of a holiday, in terms of recognition, it is something that should’ve occurred a long time ago.”
For generations, Black people in America have celebrated Juneteenth with parades, cookouts and events commemorating their history and freedom. It’s recognized as the day when slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas months after the Civil War ended in 1865.
Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday this year when President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday that was passed by Congress.
There are more than a dozen events celebrating Juneteenth in the Triangle.
But, like most federal holidays, Juneteenth is likely to become commercialized, Parker said, and some people could forget what it’s really about.
Holidays are often dominated by sales — King mattresses on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, new cars on President’s Day, patio furniture on Memorial Day and back-to-school supplies on Labor Day.
“I don’t see that Juneteenth will not be exploited in the same manner,” Parker said.
Entrepreneurs and businesses are probably already working on commercials saluting the ending of slavery and Juneteenth, but also making money off of it, he said. Parker said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were deals for “Freedom Day sneakers” one day.
While the holiday is cause for celebration, the reason behind it needs to be kept on the front burner. Parker’s hope is that enough people will learn and appreciate the history of the holiday that it won’t become just another day off.
“Education is key to getting our people, Americans, to understand the significance of any holiday,” Parker said.
That education must include not only the facts of June 19th, 1865 but also the racial massacres in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 and in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, according to Valerie Johnson, dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at Shaw University in Raleigh
These violent acts preventing enfranchisement, voting and economic development for Black Americans are also part of remembering Juneteenth, Johnson said. And that extends to current legislative issues about voting rights and policing, she said.
“We can’t divorce it from the context of what it means to be Black people in America,” Johnson said.
Johnson is also the co-director of the Center for Racial and Social Justice at Shaw, a private, historically Black university. She and some of her colleagues at Shaw see this day as a call to action, now that it’s a federal holiday.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Johnson said. “And once again we need to remember what it takes to make a democracy work. That’s what this day represents.”
Now, it’s an opportunity for the country to reckon with its history in meaningful ways, she said.
Johnson marched in Atlanta advocating for an official holiday to honor King’s life and legacy and to make note of the civil rights that had yet to be achieved.
“We can continue to talk about and do the actions that would ensure that that legacy of Dr. King and those who marched, fought and advocated with him for civil and human rights doesn’t disappear,” Johnson said. “Having that marked holiday makes it less able to just disappear.”
Johnson said even though the meaning behind the day could be diminished over time for some, she said it is up to those who are able, knowledgeable and have a voice to continue to assert what Juneteenth really is and to resist all the commercialization.