It has been 3 years since Juneteenth was declared a holiday in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This decision was made in response to the emerging global movement to confront systemic racism following the murders of George Floyd. On June 17th, 2021, Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday when President Joseph Biden signed it into law. Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was recognized in 1983.

A family and community-oriented holiday, Juneteenth has a long history in the United States. Nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States, Union troops arrived in Galveston, TX on June 19th, 1865, to tell enslaved people there that they were now free.  The very next year, emancipated Black people in the area celebrated their freedom with food, music, and other festivities. Over time, the holiday grew. Black Texans began to move around the country, taking this tradition with them. Also known as “Jubilee Day,” “Emancipation Day,” or “Black Independence Day,” Juneteenth celebrations began popping up in Black and African American communities across the US over the next few decades.

Today, the Juneteenth holiday is observed in a variety of ways. In some places, parades, cookouts, church functions, and family reunions are organized to celebrate the occasion. Some folks hold Juneteenth as a day of reflection and take time to honor the history and legacy of Black people in the United States. For them, this holiday may be reserved for prayer, reading, and reflection. For others, Juneteenth is a day devoted to civic engagement, education, and social action with a focus on addressing issues that affect Black and African American communities.

Although Juneteenth offers an opportunity to celebrate the resilience of Black America, it also serves to remind us that the barriers to wider economic freedom continue to persist, deeply rooted in systemic racism across all aspects of American life. Here are a few examples:

  • According to March 2023 statistics from the US Department of Labor, Black women, on average, are paid 67 cents for every dollar paid to white non-Hispanic men.
  • In a recent report provided by the AFL-CIO, Black and Latino workers are more likely to die on the job. In 2021, more Black employees died at work than in the previous 19 years.
  • The National Association of Realtors reports the current gap between Black and white homeownership is the highest it has been in ten years. Even some of the good news is bad; in Massachusetts, where Black homeownership is rising, Boston’s high housing costs are a barrier to entry for many Black homebuyers, sparking concerns about increased racial segregation in the city.

For every milestone worth celebrating, there is a trauma to address. For every obstacle that has been overcome, new hurdles emerge. As Juneteenth approaches, the promise of full participation in American society is far from being realized. Moving to a future where Black Americans have equal access to financial freedom, equal education, voting rights, and equitable health care requires all of us to identify the existing barriers and work tirelessly to destroy them.

To learn more about Juneteenth’s past and present, visit this digital toolkit created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Find a wealth of information that grows each year! If you’re interested in local Juneteenth programs, the Embrace Ideas Festival is returning to Boston! Led by Embrace Boston, this festival offers a variety of educational, social, and entertaining activities for the community. You can also view a daily livestream of events.

There are plenty of great Juneteenth programs taking place around the Commonwealth. Hopefully, there’s something incredible happening in or near your community.

Happy Juneteenth!

About the author: Jeff Smith is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director at Commonwealth Corporation.