This is only the second year Juneteenth has been marked as a federal holiday, with a three-day weekend and events across Chicago.
But it’s nothing new to many Black Chicagoans, who have been celebrating the holiday for years.
“Juneteenth is not a ‘let’s go take advantage of the latest sales at a retail outlet’ holiday,” said Michelle Duster, a Chicago professor, author and historian. “It’s more about sort of appreciation and reflection. It’s really family-centric or community-centric, with a sense of pride. It’s an acknowledgment that we actually built this country physically.”
The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas finally were told they were free — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Duster and others say the holiday represents the continued struggle and fight for freedom for Black Americans.
Duster is the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, the former Bronzeville resident who was an investigative journalist and crusader for the civil rights movement. Wells, born six months before the Emancipation Proclamation, died in 1931. In 2019, a major downtown Chicago thoroughfare was renamed in her honor.
“So her life story is connected to slavery and to the end of slavery and the concept of freedom,” Duster said.
Duster lives on the South Side and frequently leads efforts to honor Wells’ legacy. On Monday, Duster will speak at the Field Museum about Ida B. Wells’ legacy connected to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Admission will be free Monday to commemorate the holiday.
“It’s different from Black History Month,” Duster said. “That’s obviously a monthlong celebration of a lot of the achievements and everything. But Juneteenth is this specific day that is celebrating the actual freedom from chattel slavery.”
To Bril Barrett, co-founder of the nonprofit M.A.D.D. Rhythms, today’s struggles of Black Americans are part of the reflection on Juneteenth.
“We have to honor our legacy, our history and our contributions,” Barrett said. “Most importantly, honor the struggle and the fight and the fight that still continues to this day. I think you’ll take it as just a reminder of that because, in reality, 1865 was not that long ago.”
Duster said she always celebrated the holiday growing up, especially because one side of her family lived in Texas.
“I think a lot of people in this country really don’t know the history, and, hopefully, by having this holiday, there will be more awareness and more education about what the experience was there,” she said.
It’s important to mark the holiday, said Ted Williams III, a City Colleges of Chicago political science professor who created the stage production “1619,” a musical inspired by the arrival that year of enslaved Africans in America.
“That is what Juneteenth represents — the idea that, yes, there was freedom that was given through the Emancipation Proclamation,” Williams said. “And yet that was information that was denied to folks all across the country. So we have to celebrate a separate Independence Day because, on paper, we were free, but we never were. And this is really still true.”
He points to the economic inequality and disparate treatment by police that many Black Americans experience.
Kim Dulaney, a DuSable Museum of African American History vice president, said it’s important to fight for the right to simply not be targeted because of race.
“All of those things our ancestors paid for, for other people to benefit from, we deserve,” Dulaney said. “Freedom to jog freely, freedom to stand on the street corner and to go to the store to get some Skittles and wear a hoodie without being targeted. Freedom to exist without the stereotypes associated from the past placed on them and receiving punishments that don’t fit the crime.”
Sara Furr, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Field Museum, said the holiday spotlights the power of knowledge for the Black community.
“I think of Juneteenth as this way in which information has been withheld,” Furr said. “Knowledge is a huge way that we can build resistance, where we can move ideas forward. So, for us in Chicago, we should be just as critical of what knowledge is being withheld from us as citizens.”
Even as it’s a day to reflect, Juneteenth is also a time to celebrate, Barrett said.
“With all of that fighting and all of that struggle, it can weigh you down,” Barrett said. “So moments of joy and moments of happiness are also very important to the survival of people.”
Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.