Around Campus

Celebrating Juneteenth and what it means

One year after June 19 became a federal holiday, associate professor Renée Alexander Craft reflects on the historic day’s significance.

The official Juneteenth flag
The official Juneteenth flag features a star representing Texas, the Lone Star State, as well as the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states. The burst outlining the star, inspired by a nova (what astronomers refer to as a new star), represents a new beginning for all African Americans. (Shutterstock image)

Last week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order providing a day of personal observance leave for state employees “for a day of cultural, religious or personal significance including Juneteenth.”

This order comes nearly a year after the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day act and President Biden signed the act into law, making Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, a federal holiday.

In 2020, Renée Alexander Craft, associate professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ communication department, argued in a written piece that Juneteenth should be named a federal holiday. Working with Craft, who co-directs the UNC Student Learning to Advance Truth and Equity (SLATE), The Well adapted her earlier article into the following Q & A.

Renée Alexander Craft

Renée Alexander Craft

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the date on which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally received the news they were free. This was two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one year after the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, on April 18, 1864, and six months after it was passed by the House on January 31, 1865.

Why is recognizing Juneteenth especially important now?

The history of Black experiences in the U.S. is “justice delayed” and, all too often, “justice denied.” This is not a Black problem. It is an American problem. Consider the events of the last few years, including a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities, a righteous reckoning over policing and its relationship to anti-Black violence, and the toppling and removal of anti-Black monuments from public spaces. These turbulent times serve as a resounding affirmation that the work of Black studies departments, programs, centers and institutes remain as urgent now as it ever has been.

What is your vision for Juneteenth?

MLK Day is a day of service and reflection that focuses on the life and civil rights accomplishments of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black History month honors African American contributions to the nation and is a designated time to center knowledge that is often marginalized the other 11 months of the year. But these do not explicitly call the nation to collectively celebrate and recommit itself to the project of Black freedom.

Juneteenth ought to be both a federal celebration and an annual reckoning on race that prompts government agencies, as well as private industry, to evaluate the ways in which their policies facilitate or frustrate Black experiences of equity and inclusion.

On this one-year anniversary of Juneteenth commemorations being elevated to the status of federal holiday, I wonder anew: What would it mean to give a national mandate to close banks and post offices, to halt regular business practices and to fill parks and city streets (honoring COVID-19 protective measures) with celebrations marking the much-delayed but greatly celebrated news that slavery had finally ended? What would it mean for the nation to collectively celebrate Black liberation? What would it mean to our shared American experience for white people, even in predominantly white spaces, to celebrate Black freedom?

What advice do you have for the Carolina community in the days leading up to Juneteenth?

We the people make this nation better for all of us when we unite in our demands for progress. Our collective actions have the power to change policies and shift cultural norms. So, Happy Emancipation Day! Tell your neighbors, tell your coworkers, tell your friends. Then, act in ways to make it true.

The symbolism of the Juneteenth flag

There is an official flag flown during Juneteenth (pictured above). The flag, created in 1997 by activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, and Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf, morphed into the current version.

The symbols on the flag represent important elements of Juneteenth:

  • The date, June 19, 1865, refers to the day when enslaved African Americans learned of their emancipation.
  • The star represents Texas, the Lone Star State, as well as the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states.
  • The burst outlining the star, inspired by a nova (what astronomers refer to as a new star), represents a new beginning for all African Americans.
  • The arc represents a new horizon full of opportunities and promise for Black Americans.
  • The red, white and blue represent the American flag, reminding enslaved people and their descendants that they are Americans.

Read more stories on faculty and staff at TheWell.UNC.edu