Celebrating Juneteenth in North Texas
With the US now celebrating Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Black North Texas residents and leaders say it’s important to reflect on history, celebrate freedom and appreciate Black American culture in an authentic and constructive way.
For Arlington resident Blaize LaFleur, the increasing national attention on Juneteenth is welcome, but it’s also led to some complicated feelings.
As June neared, it didn’t take long for companies like Walmart to be accused of trivializing the holiday with their Juneteenth-related products.
LaFleur, a former member of Arlington’s Unity Council and former student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington, said missteps like these show the holiday can quickly become commercialized and companies can come off as performative just to make money.
She’s not the only one who shares these concerns.
On Sunday, 156 years after the birth of Juneteenth in Texas, and with the newly nation celebrating it as a federal holiday, LaFleur and other Black residents and leaders say it’s important to reflect on history, celebrate freedom and appreciate Black American culture in an authentic and constructive way.
What is Juneteenth?
Fort Worth resident Kimberly Johnson said what makes Juneteenth so important is a simple but impactful fact: It celebrates an actual independence for Black Americans, nearly 90 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation amid the Civil War, freeing enslaved people in the secessionist states of the Confederacy.
But the proclamation was enforced by Union troops advancing into the Confederate states, and Texas was the last state to see these troops.
On June 19, 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Texas and announced General Order No. 3, which finally proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the state.
Celebrations of that “Jubilee Day” began in 1866 in Galveston. Early celebrations were church-centered gatherings, political rallies and voter information events.
During this time, Black Americans were not allowed to use segregated public parks, so freed Texans collected their money together to buy their own land and hold their celebrations.
Over time, the early political rallies in Texas grew and spread to become celebrations across the country focused on Black art and culture.
The 1920s saw celebrations spread in the South and became more commercialized, and the second wave of the Great Migration starting in the 1940s saw Black Americans leaving the South for the North and the West Coast, bringing Juneteenth with them.
By the 1970s these kinds of celebrations were also happening in cities like Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Fort Worth activist Opal Lee, now known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, remembers a sprawling festival in 1975 at Sycamore Park in Fort Worth that saw about 30,000 people in attendance.
The three-day festival had local art displays, carnival rides, concerts, a film festival, a Western show, a tennis tournament, the Miss Juneteenth Pageant and much more.
Lee, 95, remembers the festival going on past its end time into dawn one night.
“Did we have fun!” she said.
Lee’s campaign and George Floyd
After her retirement as an educator in 1976, Lee became an advocate for social issues, Black history and Juneteenth.
Later Lee said she met Ronald Myers, a physician, jazz musician and civil rights activist who had worked for greater national recognition of Juneteenth. She said he was passionate about making Juneteenth a national holiday, and that passion became infectious.
She helped organize Fort Worth’s annual Juneteenth celebrations and has led a 2.5-mile walk each Juneteenth to represent the nearly two and half years it took for enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas.
In 2016, she walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, DC, at the age of 89 to bring awareness to Juneteenth and initiated an online petition in hopes of gaining support from Congress to officially name Juneteenth a federal holiday.
The campaign received national attention, and the petition reached 1.6 million signatures.
Last year, as President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday, Lee stood by his side.
Fort Worth resident Christopher Stewart said a major turning point in the recent reinvigoration of the holiday for many Americans was the widespread attempts to bring attention to Black culture following the death of George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck in 2020.
Stewart believes it may have taken longer than 2021 for the holiday to be nationally recognized if there wasn’t such a push for recognition of Black history outside of the Black American community.
For LaFleur, the refocus on Juneteenth in recent years also has bridged a gap for what the celebration means to younger Black Americans.
“I think there was kind of a lapse between generations,” she said. “I think somewhere in between my grandma’s generation and mine, we lost that celebration and the energy behind Juneteenth… Even though we’re Black Americans, we’re also finding our own ways to celebrate.”
For Lee, a year after the long-fought journey of making Juneteenth a national holiday, her message for Americans preparing to celebrate remains the same.
“Spread the word,” she said.
Being authentic during Juneteenth
As more Americans may be celebrating the holiday this year, concerns for performative or inappropriate celebrations have become a reality.
In late May, Walmart said it would remove some Juneteenth-related products from store shelves after criticism that the retailer was inappropriately commercializing the holiday.
Social media photos showed a Celebration Edition Juneteenth Ice Cream, which featured the red, yellow and green of the Pan-African flag.
Other retail store images show Juneteenth-themed napkins and plates and a can cooler that read, “It’s the freedom for me.”
In early June, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis came under fire for selling a “Juneteenth Watermelon Salad,” and Microsoft labeled a “Halo Infinite” skin with Pan-African flag colors “Bonobo,” a type of great ape, before changing it.
LaFleur said companies specifically can celebrate Black employees, Black customers or significant Black figures during the holiday in ways that are genuine.
When it comes to individuals, she said, people of any culture can celebrate the holiday and anyone can celebrate and enjoy Black music, movies and culture, but people don’t have to adopt or appropriate Black culture while they’re doing it.
“They shouldn’t do anything that feels inauthentic,” she said. “…You don’t have to pretend to be someone that you’re not.”
LaFleur said it’s important for Black Americans who celebrate Juneteenth to celebrate it out loud so people can see appropriate ways to celebrate.
“In a learning experience, you kind of have to meet people in the middle in terms of prior knowledge,” she said. “That’s probably going to be an emphasis for the next few years.”
Johnson said ultimately the holiday is meant to educate and celebrate.
“Learn something new and understand that there is still a lot do to improve the lives of Black people since that day 156 years ago,” she said.
Preservation of history
Beyond the June celebrations, the preservation of Juneteenth and Black American history are continuing to occur in various ways in Fort Worth.
The National Juneteenth Museum is breaking ground in 2023 and is expected to open in June 19, 2025, in the city’s Historic Southside neighborhood.
The museum is intended to be the center of the holiday and will feature designs and exhibits that celebrate Black culture in the city.
A former Ku Klux Klan building in Fort Worth is being transformed into a center for community healing, which will feature a dance rehearsal space; an art gallery for racial, gender and economic justice; affordable housing and office spaces; and an amphitheater, among other uses.
Lee is a board member for both projects.
This story contains information from the Star-Telegram’s archives.
This story was originally published June 16, 2022 1:14 PM.