Opal Lee, 95, is a retired educator, children’s book author and lifelong humanitarian. In her town of Fort Worth, she runs a 13-acre urban farm and advocates for causes such as homelessness, education and health care.
More widely across the country, Lee is also regarded as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”
But as she once humbly put it: “I’m just an old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business.”
Since 2016, Lee has trekked the country in those laced-up sneakers to push for national recognition of Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865. On that day, Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Last year, Lee’s efforts finally succeeded when President Joe Biden signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
While millions of Black Americans like Lee have long marked the day commemorating their freedom, other people in the United States still grapple with how to meaningfully observe the newest national holiday.
But activists say this recognition is important for everyone. “It’s not just a Black holiday,” said Alicia Austion, executive director of the Juneteenth Foundation. “It’s a national holiday, an American holiday that we all should lean in and really acknowledge and support.”
We asked activists and organizers to share different ways Americans can honor Juneteenth.
Visit a local or national museum
Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, emphasizes the educational value of museum experiences. For instance, Elliot said, “the Slavery and Freedom exhibition is really great because we go through that whole history from the beginning of slavery through Reconstruction. We also take it to segregation and leading up to today. So it allows you to look back and look forward.”
She also emphasizes the importance of local museums, which can help visitors establish an understanding of the history in their own community. “Local history museums are extremely important because it makes the history more personal,” she said, because “one thing we have learned with this history is it’s very nuanced.”
For those who can’t visit a museum in person this year, a handful of Black museums and historical institutions from across the country will participate in a virtual program by BLKFreedom.org to commemorate Juneteenth.
Explore selected readings and documentaries
“Learn what Juneteenth is all about – that’s where you start,” said Cliff Robinson, who created the website Juneteenth.com about 25 years ago to offer information about national events.
“It’s just like Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” he said. “It’s a time to stop and think about the history, your own history or the history of a friend.”
Among his recommendations for seeking out this history is the work of James Baldwin, an activist and acclaimed writer who wrote about racial injustice in America. “I think James is probably one of the most prolific people you can listen to along those lines,” Robinson said. In particular, he recommends “I Am Not Your Negro,” a 2016 documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” which examines race relations in America based on Baldwin’s personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Elliott, the curator at the African American Museum, said documentaries can offer a lens into specific events and eras of the Black experience. “There’s some great documentaries on Reconstruction, on slavery, on the Civil War,” she said, adding that viewers should also explore events that occurred after those periods, too, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre. “They go into a little bit of detail about what happened after freedom came, because you can’t just look at just that one moment in time.”
Elliott also recommends examining historic speeches and writings by activists like Frederick Douglass, and prolific writers during the abolition movement. “Think about poetry from the period like [that of] Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” she said, “who writes beautifully about feelings, but also the history – what was going on at the time.”
Phillis Wheatley, recognized as the first Black poet published in America, is another name Elliott suggests. Her poetry explored questions like “What was slavery? What is this desire for freedom?”
Attend a celebration or festivity
Among the most common ways to recognize Juneteenth are celebrations and festivities, said Austion, whose Washington D.C.-based foundation organizes an annual festival around the holiday. This year’s event spans four days and includes a block party, golf tournament, virtual career fair and Father’s Day reception. “We were really founded on the purpose of recognizing Juneteenth,” Austion said, “but [also] really celebrating more Black excellence, Black culture, freedom overall for all people.”
Austion believes Juneteenth celebrations offer a moment to reflect and acknowledge some of the major gains and accomplishments in the Black community: “It’s worth looking at this holiday as a way to say, ‘Because of that moment that we achieved freedom, all of these other things have been able to occur.’ ”
This year, Austion also encourages people to explore festivities in their own community. “In many places in the country, Juneteenth festivals are annual events,” she said. “You could go into pretty much every state and you’re going to find some organization that is organizing a Juneteenth festival.”
Get involved in the community
Robinson, the creator of Juneteenth.com, advises people to find out how to show up and support local Black organizations, which can have a more direct impact in the community.
“Look locally and see who’s doing what in your city and find how you can participate, and if there’s no organization doing it, then think about creating an event,” Robinson said, whose website offers ideas for getting initiatives started in local communities, as well as in the workplace. Robinson also launched a yard sign campaign as way for neighbors to show solidarity. It’s a small gesture, he said, but it helps send a message of unity.
Another idea Austion supports is buying from Black-owned businesses – a commitment she and her family have taken on for the month of June.
“There’s a huge opportunity in really building Black wealth and reinforcing a lot of what is going on in our own community,” Austion said. “But where we can, for the month of June, we try to kind of lean into the Black community and get things more directly.”