The Meaning of Juneteenth

Friday, June 17, 2022, is a historic day for Rutgers: It’s the first time that Juneteenth will be recognized as an official university holiday. This day off for students and staff is meant to provide ample opportunity for all (including alumni) to reflect on powerful events that happened more than 150 years ago.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of African American emancipation in the United States,” says Keith Green, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Rutgers–Camden. “[But] the real importance of Juneteenth for me is that freedom has to be extended to everyone.”

The professor—whose work focuses on the quest for equal rights for people of color as depicted in American literature—participated in the following Q&A to help us understand the deeper meaning and significance of this holiday, which also has a surprising New Jersey connection.

What is the story behind the first Juneteenth?

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.

Why has Juneteenth 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.

What is New Jersey’s unique connection to Juneteenth?

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.

How do you honor Juneteenth, and how can 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.


Read more: Rutgers Today essays on the value of celebrating Juneteenth.