Lessons From Juneteenth

Andrea Orozco
June 17, 2022

Juneteenth, a shortening of June and nineteenth, is an important celebration of freedom that should be observed and honored by every American. While Juneteenth has just recently been recognized as a federal holiday, it has long been celebrated in Texas in remembrance of June 19th, 1865 when nearly 250,000 enslaved people in the state finally received the news that they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, but it is also a reminder of the work that still remains in order to achieve racial equity in this country. Millions of Americans are still waiting for freedom today — economic freedom, freedom from discrimination, and freedom from hunger.

We are still ridden with the vestiges of slavery which have morphed into institutionalized racism; this manifests in disproportionate rates of food insecurity, among other inequities, and is a central focus of MAZON’s work to end hunger. With this in mind, Juneteenth marks a day of freedom and advocacy, and a recommitment to dismantling the systemic racism that persists today. 

Juneteenth Through History 

General Gordon Granger and 7,000 Black Union troops marched into Galveston, Texas to read General Order No. 3, declaring the enslaved people of Texas free on June 19th, 1865. This came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln, and several months after the end of the Civil War. While Juenteenth is a joyous celebration of freedom, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that nearly 250,000 people remained enslaved in Texas for so long after change had been decided.

Juneteenth has been a state-recognized holiday in Texas since the 1980s, but it has been celebrated by Black Texans in the state for much longer as a second Independence Day. The holiday is often marked by parades, southern soul food, and education through song and dance. Before federal recognition, a total of 47 states had recognized the holiday and many had established celebrations as a result of advocates like Dr. Ronald Myers and Opal Lee. 

The legacy of Juneteenth has been woefully overlooked as a part of this country’s history, particularly in school curriculums. If we are truly committed to equity in this country, and to ending ongoing injustices like hunger, we must acknowledge the historical injustices preceding it.

Lessons from Juneteenth & Emancipation

Enslaved people in Texas were the last to hear the news of Emancipation, but after Juneteenth they joined the rest of their newly freed countrymen and women who, in gaining personal freedom, also found themselves without housing, food, or economic safety. Ending slavery was a big step towards correcting this country’s original sin of slavery, but it required a certain level of federal backing that receded in the years following Emancipation. Reconstruction remains incomplete in our country to this day.

The lack of political will to carry out legislation needed to truly reconstruct a fractured nation led to the rise of Jim Crow laws across the South and a myriad of social and economic disparities that continue to exist. Disparate rates of homeownership, poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity are just some of the reverberating legacies of institutionalized racism. 

The Fight for Racial Equity Continues 

For many, Juneteenth is synonymous with Opal Lee. For years, Ms. Lee walked 2.5 miles as a nod to the two and a half years it took for Black Texans to receive news of their freedom, and in her late 80s she began to march to DC from her home in Fort Worth, Texas in an effort to gain federal recognition. Eventually, Ms. Lee was successful — in 2021, President Biden signed a proclamation on a Juneteenth Day of Observance. 

Opal Lee, fondly dubbed the Grandmother of Juneteenth, put it best when she said, “none of us are free until we are all free, and freedom is what we still have to work towards.” There is much work to be done. 

Ms. Lee’s advocacy extended past Juneteenth and into the work of food justice as she served as the Board Chair for the Community Food Bank of Fort Worth and recently carried out her vision of an urban farm in Northeast Texas. Liberation is not just the absence of slavery, it also requires the unshackling of its reverberating legacies like food insecurity. 

It is no coincidence that predominantly and historically marginalized communities are also food deserts. It is no coincidence that harmful SNAP policies exclude communities of color from receiving aid to which they are entitled.

According to the Center for American Progress, in 2020, 21.7 percent of Black households experienced food insecurity, as did 17.2 percent of Hispanic households, compared to 7.1 percent of white households.

Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to struggle with low wages, lack of paid time off, access to reliable transportation, and other factors. These all negatively impact job stability. Likewise, due to hiring discrimination and barriers to employment like a felony record, they are more likely to be a part of the informal economy doing work that cannot or is not reported. Combined, these factors mean Black households are significantly impacted – by design – by work requirements and ABAWD time limits.

Juneteenth commemorates freedom, but it is now on us to continue the work of justice and liberation.