My grandparents, Maggie and Ennis Williams, would be proud. Juneteenth, a holiday they ensured was celebrated in my grandmother’s birthplace of Galveston, Texas, is now a federal holiday.
Galveston also birthed the celebration of Juneteenth, a commemoration of General Gordon Granger reading General Order #3 to free Texas’ 250,000 enslaved people. It seems an ironic acknowledgement that Black people had no knowledge of their own freedom even two years past a national proclamation.
Sometimes irrational irony requires repetition: The United States of America, the “land of the free” now has a federal holiday celebrating how this country intentionally did not share news of freedom to my ancestors.
With Juneteenth’s recognition part of me feels gratified.
Maggie and Ennis Williams carried and grew the tradition of celebrating of Juneteenth for decades. In 2009, the Texas House of Representatives honored their commitment to Juneteenth, also evident in their legacy as leaders of Texas’ Oldest Black Baptist Church, Avenue L. Missionary Baptist Church and graduates of the historic Old Central High School, which they turned into Old Central Cultural Center – ensuring that the first public library for Black people remained held its history.
My grandmother even authored a local guidebook to African American Historic Places and pioneers, affirming their legacy was one of service and ensuring Black History in Galveston was documented and shared widely.
One of my funniest memories was my grandparents receiving national press for their annual Juneteenth celebration, as it seemed to be a phenomenon outside of our Texas state lines for decades. Always happy to answer anyone’s questions, my grandmother put their home phone number as the contact.
This was during one of my summer visits, so I remember the phone ringing constantly from out-of-state callers. We were all perplexed at first, only to later laugh at the costly mistake that prompted many long-distance fees to happily share about their favorite holiday.
Today I have a sense of pride, as if I know that my grandparents’ efforts to continue Black history were not in vain. Commemorating Juneteenth through a national celebration ensures our country’s ironic legacy is acknowledged for future generations.
However, the other part of me is equally concerned about the commodification of Juneteenth, with national brands such as Nike, Target and JCPenney publicizing that they are making this a paid holiday. I’m concerned that the acknowledgement sits as a facade to appease progress, rather than to take equal and greater steps to address diminishing voting rights, life-altering police reform, and removal of critical race theory.
Without addressing our most pressing barriers to what freedom looks like in today’s Black America, it’s likely that we will need another Juneteenth. We will need a new reckoning to remove the guise of perceived economic and physical liberation.
Some days I feels like we are in that moment today, for those that can take advantage of the increased awareness of systematic racism. The health, economic, and social justice crisis opened many new, yet still not enough, opportunities for Black people and other people of color to take leadership while amplifying in our impact and influence.
Yet, I also know that obscuring Black freedom is forever imminent in America, despite my grandparents’ intentions. I’m not sure we will ever truly be free, or that our liberation from some form of enslavement is ever possible.
So today, and in perpetuity, all Americans will continue to celebrate Juneteenth, the journey of Black people towards freedom. However, it is crucial to remember that Black freedom is at a cost, and Juneteenth taught us that it is continually delayed.
Maggie J. Parker is the Managing Partner of Innovan Neighborhoods, a community-oriented real estate development and consulting firm, and is a 2021 Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.