Arts & Culture

What Juneteenth Means to Me

Five of the holiday’s spirit bearers share how they are helping keep the emancipation celebration alive in the twenty-first century

Photo: Courtesy of Michiel Perry and The Food Network

Michiel Perry looks over at restaurateur Charlotte Jenkins's pot of okra pilau, as seen on the Food Network program The Juneteenth Menu.

June 19, 1865, was a momentous day in Galveston, Texas. The Union Army arrived with the news that enslaved African Americans in the area were free, and that their freedom would be safeguarded until slavery was officially outlawed across the nation—information that had been withheld from them for more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation went effect. The very next year, those freed Texans began commemorating the date as a holiday. Known at first as the “June 19th” or “Nineteenth of June” celebrations, “Juneteenth” has since gained tremendous popularity in communities across the country. Texas made Juneteenth an official holiday in 1980, and now, this year, it has finally become a national holiday

This recognition wouldn’t have happened without dedicated people working to keep the tradition alive across the country. Many Black Texans who migrated to other places began Juneteenth celebrations to recreate a sense of home. Others with no prior Juneteenth experience did so because they wanted to kickstart a new community tradition. The holiday gained tremendous cultural currency of late when activists connected it to the vital social justice issues of our time. 

On the culinary side, Juneteenth has become synonymous with red-colored foods, namely barbecue (made red from the sauce), red drink, red velvet cake, and watermelon—African Americans consider red a culturally significant color, representing the blood shed by enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath. Here, five Black culinary professionals with roots in the South share in their own words what Juneteenth means to them; how they savor and save the tradition through food and drink; and how the holiday reminds us that no one is free until we’re all free.

Jennifer Hill Booker

Booker, an Oklahoman who now lives in Georgia, is a chef who trained at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Paris, France. She has authored two cookbooks, appeared on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, and has launched a seasoning line called Your Resident Gourmet

“The story of Juneteenth is one of pain and suffering—but also one of redemption and joy. What I find inspiring about Juneteenth was the ability for the newly freed slaves to look past their forced enslavement—at least in that moment—and find reason to celebrate and rejoice. This celebration took the form of prayer, music, and, of course, food. The dishes were made up of whatever ingredients the emancipated slaves had on hand, including hibiscus flowers used to make punch. This bright, purplish-red punch was made by steeping the dried flower petals in water and sweetening with sugar or honey. The color symbolizes strength and spirituality in West African cultures, and red-colored drinks continue to be part of Black food history. I was fascinated to learn that hibiscus is native to West Africa.

“The hibiscus punch history inspired me to create my Juneteenth Jubilee Hibiscus Lemonade Punch Mix, as part of my Your Resident Gourmet Cooks! Sugar & Spice line. I love the vibrant color, and its deep history. Each sale gives me the opportunity to share the 1865 Juneteenth origin story with my customers, because I print it on every label. My hope is that by sharing this, everyone will know the origin story of Juneteenth and that my Juneteenth Jubilee Punch will be part of everyone’s celebration. That’s why I call it ‘history in a glass.’”

Gail Jennings

Jennings, a Texas native now based in Durham, North Carolina, founded the West African–inspired King’s Pepper Spice Blends. She is the co-organizer of the Black Arts Los Angeles Juneteenth Celebration.

“I possess a remarkable document that was put together by two of my cousins who did extensive research on our family tree. It was given to me in 2010 at our family reunion in Crockett, Texas. Entitled Establishing a Family Amid Chaos, it tells of the long journey made by my great-great-grandmother and -father from Mississippi to Texas after their enslavers, the Ellis family, moved to the newly independent Republic of Texas in 1836/37.

“Juneteenth is important to me because it is deeply personal to me. I’m not speaking from the history lessons I learned in class, but from the family lore that’s been handed down and practiced to this day. Last week, I was on a Zoom call with some of my first cousins. ‘The queen’ of this weekly call is Aunt Theresa who, at ninety-three, is our oldest relative and the last of my mother’s living in-laws. I asked about her memories of celebrating Juneteenth, and she said that from the earliest days of her marriage to my Uncle Beasley, they had celebrated Juneteenth annually at Lake Mexia, on land purchased by a Black family just for that reason. She laughed about how there would be ‘dancing and sinning’ in one building and singing and shouting in the church next door.

“When the Great Migration occurred, many of those who moved out West from Texas and Louisiana were descendants of those freed on Juneteenth. So celebrating the occasion has been a tradition in Los Angeles for close to a hundred years (or more). After all, Black people have been in Los Angeles since it was founded by mostly Afro-Mexicans in 1781. Some, I’d imagine, had moved West after crossing the Rio Grande to escape slavery. They didn’t have huge celebrations like we had in Leimert Park [in central Los Angeles] last year, where some 5,000 came out for Freedom Day. The earliest celebrations took place quietly in churches, parks, and at family picnics and dinners, which gradually got louder and larger as each generation realized how significant the date was. 

I see Juneteenth as a day of celebration, of affirmation, and of recommitment to the dreams and ideals of our ancestors. A chance to put aside our protest signs for the sake of our mental well-being, and just be the happiest we can be until we are truly ‘free.’”

Vallery Lomas

Lomas, the season three winner of The Great American Baking Show, hails from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After pursuing a career as an attorney, Lomas pivoted to baking full-time, a pursuit she chronicles on her site, Foodie in New York

“What Juneteenth means to me has evolved over the years. It wasn’t until high school when I first commemorated the holiday. I always felt some cognitive dissonance about thinking of it as a holiday to be celebrated, because it’s also a reminder of the horrors of slavery and how they persisted even after slavery was finally made illegal. 

“But now, I relish the opportunity to commune with my people. Our mere existence is something to celebrate. I spend Juneteenth feasting with friends, over a spread, cook-out style. Ranging from cakes to ribs, potato salad, and everything in between. In keeping with the holiday, I’ve created a number of red velvet desserts, including red velvet cake, red velvet cookies, a No Bake Red Velvet Bull’s Eye Cheesecake, and a strawberry jelly cake.”

Michiel Perry

A South Carolina native, Michiel Perry is the driving force behind Black Southern Belle, a lifestyle brand celebrating African American women in the South. She also hosts the new Food Network series The Juneteenth Menu, for which Black chefs highlight the holiday with Lowcountry cuisine.

“Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate the heritage and history of emancipation and freedom. The holiday holds special meaning [for me], being from the Lowcountry. 

The Juneteenth Menu series with Food Network highlights the incredible talents of Black women, and their contributions. I was thrilled to cook alongside talented women and friends: The Cocktail Bandits cofounder Taneka Reaves, Gullah cuisine chef Charlotte Jenkins, Gina Capers-Willis of What’s Gina Cooking, and Emma Cromedy of Carolima’s Dessert Boutique. These women are building their own legacies inspired by their culture and family history. 

“With the series, I am keeping the tradition of Juneteenth alive by honoring the history, heritage, and contributions of Black women who continue to preserve and share their food recipes, especially Gullah cuisine. I want to explore our history while expanding our legacy.”

Michelle Wallace

Wallace, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, is the executive chef at Gatlin’s BBQ, an African American–owned barbecue restaurant in Houston, Texas.

“I grew up in St. Louis . . . a place where we didn’t celebrate. I was a student in a predominantly white school district, so I wasn’t taught that much Black history anyway. At first, I was shocked when I found out about Juneteenth. How could we not all get word after Freedom? The more I thought about it, of course, that would happen to enslaved people.

“I was fully introduced to the holiday when I went to college at Texas Southern University in 1997. I wanted to go to a HBCU [historically Black college and university] to get the Black history education that I missed in high school. I just remember that people were so excited about Juneteenth . . . the history, the parades, and the food. It was the thing to do! I loved the sense of community that this special day creates.

“We’re going to serve rib tips as a Juneteenth special at Gatlin’s BBQ. Not what you typically think of for Texas barbecue, but we’ve had such a huge response after being featured on the Netflix special High on the Hog. We’re just trying keep up with the increased demand for the things regularly featured on our menu.”