After years of advocating and campaigning, Juneteenth is being recognized as a federal, state and local holiday for the first time this year. The day recognizes June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The effort to make Juneteenth a Chicago holiday started in November of 2019.
Now, three years later, it’s officially on the city's calendar just like July 4th and other major American holidays.
“This cause was important to us because in 2019 when we kicked off this campaign, it was a historic period for Black people in this country. 2019 marked the 400 year anniversary of Africans being brought here as slaves, it also represented the 100 year anniversary of the 1919 Chicago race riot and as well as the 50th anniversary of Fred Hampton's assassination, and when we realized that 2019 was such a historic year, we said that we need to do something to recognize the lineage of Black American descendants of slavery,” said LaCreshia Birts, founder & co-chair of the Black Remembrance Project.
The Black Remembrance Project reached out to several Chicago alderpeople in hopes of getting the city to designate Juneteenth an official holiday. Ald. Maria Hadden’s (49th Ward) office took up the group’s proposal.
“To me it was something that was long overdue,” said Torrence Gardner, former director of Economic and Community Development for the 49th Ward, who helped draft Chicago's Juneteenth legislation through Hadden's office, “African Americans’ contributions to the city of Chicago should never be overlooked no longer, and it has been overlooked for far too long.”
Although the push for a Juneteenth holiday started in 2019, activists say the murder of George Floyd and the summer of 2020 certainly fueled those efforts.
“I think the summer of 2020 had a huge impact on our cause,” Birts said. “I think that the uprisings really helped to put attention on the Black community, and I mean even before George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we were still kind of getting momentum from that as well. There was a whole new generation of activists that were born from Black Lives Matter, myself included, and so I think that that had a tremendous impact on Juneteenth.”
During the city’s Juneteenth flag raising event, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city leaders recognized the accomplishment of designating Juneteenth as a holiday, but said there’s more work to be done. Gardner agrees saying a Juneteenth holiday is only the beginning.
“We wanted Juneteenth to be a testament to move things forward, a catalyst to bring folks together, and through Juneteenth, (there’s) an opportunity to further again, solve those issues that we still have not resolved in our African American communities,” Gardner said.
The creation of a Juneteenth holiday has prompted corporations to create Juneteenth themed products. Companies like Walmart and Dollar Tree received backlash for some of the items, and have since apologized, but activists say they’re working to ensure the day remains protected and corporations respect its significance.
“As a Black American descendant of U.S. Chattel slavery, I believe in being a good steward of Juneteenth, making sure that people who are trying to take part in the holiday don't monetize or profit off of it in a way that's disrespectful to the lineage of American slavery descendants. I think that if corporations want to participate, they should be doing it in a way that is respectful to the actual people in the groups that this holiday is set upon, which is Black American descendants of slavery and we're trying to start a conversation about corporate responsibility as well as equity,” said Birts, who organized a coalition focused on keeping companies from monetizing Juneteenth.
Birts says her next fight is to get the city of Chicago to pay reparations to descendants of enslaved African Americans.