From concerts on the White House lawn to greeting cards, Juneteenth is a full-blown holiday

As the rest of the country catches up with Texas on celebrating Juneteenth the “holiday-ifcation” of the day is officially underway. 

Juneteenth, White House, South Lawn, Juneteenth celebrations, Juneteenth 2024, Juneteenth greeting cards,
Gospel singer Kirk Franklin dances with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris as he performs during a concert marking Juneteenth on the South Lawn of the White House on June 10, 2024 in Washington, DC. President Joe Biden In 2021 signed legislation establishing as a Federal holiday Juneteenth, which commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

Once an obscure day celebrated predominantly in Texas, Juneteenth is emerging as a full-blown “greeting card” holiday. President Joe Biden hosted an early celebration this week, a concert on the White House’s south lawn featuring none other than Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle. Cities from Denver, Colorado, to Cincinnati, Ohio, have major events slated for the coming days. You can even find cards on Amazon now.

Since the day became a federal holiday in 2021, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories recognize it. This also means that more and more non-Black Americans have become aware of its significance. 

To gain a sense of how the day is unfolding in modern times, theGrio recently sat down with someone who grew up with a rich tradition around the day in Texas and someone who has recently adopted the holiday in her life. We discussed everything from the humor in celebrating it with non-Black people to how to continue to center Black joy as it evolves.

Alan Freeman, 61, who grew up celebrating Juneteenth in Texas, where it originated, recalled neighborhood block parties, grabbing plates of food from just about anyone’s house, and utter joy. 

“Juneteenth was such an electric holiday,” he said. “It was like the whole neighborhood was like a Cheech and Chong movie because there was so much barbecue smoke from everyone, because everybody, every family celebrated the holiday.”

After the day became a federal holiday, he said, Texas got even bigger and bolder with its celebration of June 19, the day in 1865 when the last of enslaved people in Confederate territory – those in Galveston Bay, Texas – learned they were free, about 2 1/2 years after the fact.

Before the federal designation, cities throughout Texas grew to develop rich traditions around commemorating Juneteenth with parades, barbecues, and other events. Since the designation, Galveston, where the holiday came to be, has joined in the fun. Freeman explained the city put finances and resources toward launching several cultural events including an upcoming Juneteenth comedy festival he hosts.

“It’s been amazing,” he said as he gears up for the second year on June 14.

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Freeman, a comedian based in Texas, can also easily see the humor and joy in the celebration as it evolves to incorporate more non-Black people. He actually recommends that they take part.

“They celebrate it harder than we do,” he said of white Texans who come to his comedy show in droves. “It’s one day where white people are really happy for us.”

He added, teasing, “You want to get something from white people, Juneteenth is the day. Take them to the bank. Take them to the grocery store. They are so generous during that day.”

Freeman represents the old guard of the holiday. Meanwhile, Ebony Nichols, a greeting card designer based in St. Louis who adopted the tradition after it became a federal holiday, is among the new generation celebrating.

Nichols, 38, said that while she always knew about the day in history, she didn’t grow up celebrating it.

“Once Juneteenth became a national holiday, I really began to personally take interest in [it],” Nichols explained. “I decided that this was worth celebrating, understanding how Black history appears today and being able to celebrate our progress, how far we’ve come and their commitment to continue to make this country live up to its promise. I felt like that was worth celebrating.”

Nichols was one of the first among her friends and family to begin celebrating the holiday annually.

“I almost felt like I was a personal ambassador to my family and friends,” she added.

As we prepare to commemorate another Juneteenth this year, Nichols, who runs Announce Divinely, has seen a growing increase in demand for Juneteenth greeting cards. Her collection features 16 cards with thoughtful messages and designs. She said she envisions absolutely anyone, including non-Black folks, sending these cards to whomever they want.  

“I really feel like Juneteenth is very much worthy of sending a card,” she said, adding that the holiday can be an opportunity to reconnect.

“Almost like this is my summer check-in with you,” she added. 

If a greeting card blatantly spelling out “Happy Juneteenth” feels like too much, Nichols said it doesn’t hurt to send a more generic greeting card. Considering how Juneteenth originated from an epic moment of miscommunication in history, Nichols finds amusement in this day becoming an official “check in on your people” day, whether through sending cards or in person.

“Juneteenth was originally people checking in with each other and letting them know, spreading the good news about hope, about opportunity, about change,” she continued. “So if you believe in hope, if you believe in opportunity, if you believe in change, then Juneteenth is a holiday that you can get behind.”

While many like Nichols and Freeman can see the joy in Juneteenth, there are many who struggle with the day’s significance, especially as it arrives amid major geopolitical strife and as many Black people remain severely disenfranchised in this country and beyond.

“Joy is complicated,” Nichols said. “Joy is not saying that nothing bad ever happens or that everything is perfectly OK. Joy is saying that in spite of the darkness, this is a little bit of light that I can lead into the world that can energize me to go further.”

Freeman added that if white people are looking for a way to really help Black people celebrate and experience joy, they could Cash App them $1,900 on the day. 

“It’s a joke,” he said, “but you know, it’s like if you really want to feel good…”