The Importance of Juneteenth

Keith Green

Juneteenth, which became a state holiday in New Jersey last year, commemorates a historic event that happened more than a century and a half ago, about 1,600 miles from Trenton.

Ahead of Juneteenth—observed this year in New Jersey on June 18—we asked Keith Green, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, to help us understand New Jersey’s newest holiday.

Green, whose work focuses on the quest for equal rights for people of color in American literature, says, “The real importance of Juneteenth for me is that freedom has to be extended to everyone.”

Here, he explains the importance of Juneteenth, its South Jersey connection, and what each of us can do to honor the holiday.

What is Juneteenth, and why is it important?

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of African American emancipation in the United States. The first Juneteenth occurred on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger entered Galveston to inform the people of Texas that slavery was over.

On top of the indignity of slavery, the real tragedy of what happened on Juneteenth was that the enslaved population of Texas—somewhere around 200,000 black folks—had already been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and also by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. They were informed of their freedom roughly two and a half years after the fact. Even today, that hits at people’s heartstrings.

Juneteenth commemorates a day in 1865, so why has it gained prominence only recently?

We are at a moment of racial reckoning. We’re seeing greater attention paid to African American displacement, discrimination, and mistreatment, and a lot of conversations around police brutality. There are conversations around a definition of white supremacy that is more than simply the Ku Klux Klan or cross burning, but that deals with our educational system, our health care system, our standards of beauty, and how we teach history. When we understand history in those ways, Juneteenth makes perfect sense. Juneteenth stands for the fact that until all of us are free, none of us can be free. If there are people in Texas in 1865 who had not received their freedom, then we really couldn’t have said that slavery had been abolished.

Today, we’re reckoning with the idea that as long as we live in a world where George Floyd can be murdered in broad daylight, none of us can be free. That’s not a world where any of us should feel content.

One reason Juneteenth is being taught more now is because people are trying to go back to those moments that tell us how we got here. Juneteenth is a prime example of how freedom was delayed and denied. We’re living in a moment where we can see how, again, freedom is still being delayed and denied.

Juneteenth became a state holiday in New Jersey last year. Does Juneteenth have a local connection?

In South Jersey we have the wonderful town of Lawnside, the oldest African American incorporated municipality in the north. When we think about the history of Black people having our freedom delayed and denied, Lawnside is a great example of how Black folks have taken their freedom. Lawnside was founded by free Black folk, and that community is still living and thriving. The Lawnside Historical Society preserved the Peter Mott House, a site on the Underground Railroad where Black folks protected each other from slavery.

Juneteenth causes us to look at our own local histories and see where those powerful stories are. All of our communities have these heroic stories of Black folks saving themselves and advancing their communities.

(Editor’s note: In New Jersey, Juneteenth is celebrated on the third Friday in June.)

How do you honor Juneteenth, and how do you recommend others honor the day?

Historically, Juneteenth was seen as a day of celebration. I’ve been to many a Juneteenth barbecue. But people have also used Juneteenth to politically organize. It’s a good opportunity to find out the concerns in your neighborhood, in your city, in your region, and begin to become politically active, whether it’s having a town hall or finding elected officials and having a conversation with them about what needs to be addressed.

Being a teacher of English, I always go back to books. Juneteenth is a great day to find a book that you’ve been meaning to read, whether it’s a classic, such as Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, or something more contemporary, such as great Black science fiction by people like N.K. Jemisin. Just find a good book and educate yourself.