UT student, alumnus share feelings about Juneteenth’s history, recent federal holiday status

Morgan Flowers celebrated Juneteenth for the first time by watching TV and receiving gifts from his friends. 

“Until recently, it was more of an acknowledgment within my family,” UT alumnus Flowers said. “We knew the history of the emancipation of African Americans, but I think (Juneteenth) has a lot of deception associated with it because it’s a holiday based on free people not knowing they’re free.”

Juneteenth is the commemoration of army officials landing in Galveston Bay in 1865 to tell the last enslaved people they were free and had been free since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Over 150 years later, the momentous occasion is honored through festivals and museums nationwide. However, there are still disparities with Juneteenth and people’s knowledge of the holiday. 

Although well known throughout the Black community, Gaila Sims, American studies graduate student, said because Juneteenth started as a regional holiday for Texas, in the past, many people outside of the Black community may not have realized the history and importance behind the holiday. However, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, she said Juneteenth has become more widely recognized. 

“We’re (now) grappling with the legacies of slavery in ways that are more vocal,” Sims said. “Juneteenth represents this really important moment where enslavement ended, but it also represents the fact that legacies of slavery still reverberate in the United States.”

Flowers believes the holiday to be disingenuous. He said giving everyone a day off work does not truly celebrate the emancipation of an oppressive system. 

“If the government wanted to do something equivalent to the emancipation of Black people, they would put forth some laws and reforms that would actually help Black people,” Flowers said. “Instead of a national holiday, let’s expunge records of nonviolent drug offenses, or divert money from the police, or roll out reparations to the Black people who built this country; I would rather have that than a holiday.”

Flowers said he feels like the impact of Juneteenth is diluted by Eurocentrism and conservatism in America. 

“Celebrating the end of slavery is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if (the government) isn’t going to do anything meaningful to constitute and promote that liberation,” Flowers said. 

On June 15, Gov. Greg Abbott banned the teaching of critical race theory in all K-12 Texas classrooms, making it unlawful to teach Juneteenth in the curriculum. 

“The hypocrisy is ridiculous,” Flowers said. “Let’s celebrate the end of slavery, but let’s enact laws to forbid the teachings of racial frameworks and critical race theory. A holiday isn’t going to solve the problems caused by years of enslavement and oppression.” 

Sims said through education and the right legislation, there are a lot of steps non-Black people can take when it comes to honoring the holiday. 

“Obviously, enslaved folks weren’t allowed to vote, so we need to make sure that the legacies of people trying to help Black folks vote are honored and that voting rights become more entrenched in our country,” Sims said. “There’s documentaries, podcasts, photo essays and all other sorts of ways to access this information.”

Flowers said social media is also a strong tool to spread awareness and access information that isn’t available in the education system. 

“I never learned about Juneteenth (in school); I thought it was just passed down by word of mouth by my family,” Flowers said. “But that’s the problem isn’t it? We let the people in power whitewash our history leaving us uneducated about (topics like) slavery, oppression and the 13th Amendment. We need to learn, that’s the only way to break this cycle of ignorance.”