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Three children color in a long black-and-white poster that says "Black Lives Matter Every Day All the Time"
Signs during the 2020 Juneteenth in Washington, D.C. (Carol Highsmith Archives, Library of Congress)

Juneteenth: Remembrances & Recipes

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This post was authored by Monica Valentine, Program Specialist in the Informal Learning Office.

June 19th became  a federal U.S. holiday in 2021. This date, known as Juneteenth, commemorates the anniversary of Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas in 1865 with an announcement of freedom for enslaved African-Americans. Though President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, the news did not reach those enslaved in Texas until General Gordon Granger delivered General Order Number 3. In this post, we will share collections that prompt family listening activities and conversation to augment your observation of the holiday.

Many Library of Congress collections speak to the history of Juneteenth. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s papers include a handwritten copy of a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A document with cursive handwriting. The document reads "In pursuance of the sixth section of the act of congress entitled “An act to suppress insurrection and to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes” Approved July 17. 1862, and which act, and the Joint Resolution explanatory thereof, are herewith published, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim to, and warn all persons within the contemplation of said sixth section to cease participating in, aiding, countenancing, or abetting the existing rebellion, or any rebellion against the government of the United States, and to return to their proper allegiance to the United States, on pain of the forfeitures and seizures, as within and by said sixth section provided— And I hereby make known that it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress, to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure for tendering pecuniary aid to the free choice or rejection, of any and all States which may then be recognizing and practically sustaining the authority of the United States, and which may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, gradual adoption 2 abolishment of slavery within such State or States — that the object is to practically restore, thenceforward to be maintain,3 the constitutional relation between the general government, and each, and all the states, wherein that relation is now suspended, or disturbed; and that, for this object, the war, as it has been, will be, prosecuted. And, as a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object, I, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do order and declare that on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixtythree, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.
Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916: Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, July 22, 1862 (Preliminary Draft of Emancipation Proclamation). Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Library also holds first-person accounts of the lives of formerly-enslaved people in its collections, including individuals enslaved in Texas. “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938” is a digitized collection that includes more than 2,300 accounts and 500 black and white portraits of formerly enslaved men and women.

If you choose to read the narratives with your older children, reflect together on the range of emotions formerly-enslaved people might have experienced upon learning of their freedom. Before reading, please note that the narratives were collected almost ninety years ago, by white interviewers, and are a reflection of the time in which they were created. We recommend you read this full contextualizing statement before diving in with your family.

The American Folklife Center also contains 23 interviews recorded between 1932 and 1975, in which formerly-enslaved people reflected on their experiences. A few oral histories of people who lived in Texas give us insight into the detailed and personal stories of enslaved people receiving news of their freedom as well what life was like for them during slavery and the reconstruction era. For example, at 9: 01 in the first part of her interview, Laura Smalley reflects on how her enslaver returned from fighting in the Civil War, but did not let anyone know about emancipation, until he “turn [ed] them loose on the nineteenth of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day”. Later in the interview at minute 8:48 in part four, she again remembers a “big dinner on the nineteenth.” If you chose to listen to these with your family, be aware that the full recordings beyond the timestamps contain language that we might find troubling today.

A brown poster with the words "A Cultural Juneteenth Festival." Festival is in bright yellow and above a stylized drawing of several people dancing and playing guitar with green, red and white balloons. The poster is advertising an all-day event at the Bayview Opera House.
San Francisco, California. A Cultural Juneteenth Festival. Poster by Jos Sances, 1988. Mission Gráfica/La Raza Graphics collection (Library of Congress)

The Library collections also pay homage to more recent Juneteenth celebrations. For example, this poster in the Library’s Prints and Photographs was created by printmaker and muralist Jos Sances to advertise a festival in 1988—more than thirty years before Juneteenth became a federal holiday. With your children, take a close look at the poster to see if you can find ways that Juneteenth may have been commemorated that day.

Today’s Juneteenth traditions include music, dance performances, poetry readings and creating art. Celebrators might make traditional foods such as barbecued meats, pies, black eyed peas and collard greens. Red food and drinks like red velvet cake, hibiscus tea and strawberry soda are also crowd favorites, for reasons that historians have theorized include the color’s connections to African cultures, or its relation to sacrifice.

Photographer Carol M. Highsmith documented a community event in Washington DC in 2020. Take a look at the images below.

The back of a head of a child with braids who is coloring a large mural
Black Lives Matter Art and signs during the 2020 Juneteenth Celebration on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. (Carol Highsmith Collection, Library of Congress).

As you look at the images, reflect on the way that children and adults are commemorating the holiday. Are any these traditions are similar to or different from your own? Which ones are you wondering more about?

A woman wewaring a Juneteenth shirt with a "black power" fist on it claps her hands along to music and closes her eyes as she dances. She has long braids and is wearing a surgical mask pulled down on her chin.
Dancers and marchers visit the 2020 Juneteenth Celebration on Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House. (Carol Highsmith Collection, Library of Congress).

Will your family participate in a Juneteenth celebration this year? What traditions will you continue? What new traditions might you create?

Consider making strawberry soda for your own celebration, as found in the book What to Drink: The Blue Book of Beverages.

An excerpt of a book with the recipe for strawberry soda.
Page 10 of What to Drink; the Blue Book of Beverages.

Delicious pies are also often served at Juneteenth celebrations. Did you know the Library of Congress holds a copy of one of the earliest cookbooks published by an African American woman?  What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking was published in 1881 by the Women’s Co-operative Printing Office. The book shares the recipes of a formerly-enslaved woman named Abby Fisher from South Carolina. Try out Mrs. Fisher’s recipe for sweet potato pie below, found on page 26.

In addition to cooking traditional foods, add to your Juneteenth traditions by listening, looking, and observing primary sources at the Library. We encourage you to look at the following Library resources as your family learns together.

  • An overview and context of the holiday
  • An in-depth, historical background featuring more oral histories of formerly-enslaved people
  • A special Juneteenth conversation about supporting young people during a nationwide period of social unrest, featuring Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Former National Ambassadors for Young People Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson

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