Juneteenth, short for June nineteenth, commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States. June 19th is the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation that all enslaved people be freed. On June 17th, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday. It has been a long time coming. Dr. Opal Lee has been campaigning for decades to have Juneteenth nationally recognized, and when she was 94 years old, she saw President Biden sign the bill. Communities nationwide are celebrating by walking 2.5 miles, in recognition of the 2.5 years it took for the news of freedom to reach all enslaved people in the United States.
Juneteenth is also known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Emancipation Day,” or “Freedom Day.” The holiday is the oldest national holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Traditionally, the day was celebrated by praying and bringing families together. In 1872, a group of Black ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land, which they turned into Emancipation Park, a place to hold Juneteenth celebrations.
Today it is still celebrated within families, with gatherings and food, but it’s also celebrated on a larger scale in many cities with parades, freedom walks, and festivals, especially since it became a federal holiday last year. There is a Miss Juneteenth competition that had been held on the local level for years, but in 2020 the first national competition was held in Memphis, Tennessee, where Saniya Gay won the title. While Juneteenth has been celebrated in some communities for years, it has sadly been relatively unknown in much of the country.
Here are some books that will help people of all ages learn more about Juneteenth, from children to adults.
The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States by Alliah L. Agostini, illustrated by Sawyer Cloud
A beautifully illustrated children’s book, The Juneteenth Story gives an introduction to the history of Juneteenth and the evolution of the holiday. Kids can learn about the events that led to the freedom of all enslaved peoples and why it took so long for those in Texas to hear the news. The first Juneteenth was called “Jubilee Day,” where families celebrated and learned about their new rights as citizens of the United States. When Black Texans moved to other parts of the country, they took their traditions and the celebration of Juneteenth along with them, spreading the celebration of the holiday.
Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper
Follow one little girl’s experience as she gets ready to celebrate Juneteenth. From the publisher: Maize is ready to celebrate liberty. She is ready to celebrate freedom. She is ready to celebrate a great day in American history — the day her ancestors were no longer slaves. Mazie remembers the struggles and the triumph. This children’s book will inform and captivate both children and adults.
All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis, illustrator
An award-winning team work together to bring a story, through the eyes of one little girl, of the first Juneteenth. Angela Johnson, three-time winner of Coretta Scott King Awards, and E.B. Lewis, award-winning illustrator, have made a stunning picture book that includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline of important dates, and a glossary of relevant terms. All Different Now is a joyous portrait of the end to slavery, the darkest part of our history.
On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
Historian, Harvard professor, and Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed weaves together American history, dramatic family chronicles, and searing episodes of memoir in one triumphant work. On Juneteenth gives a historian’s view of the holiday’s journey from 1865 to the signing of the bill to commemorate the day as a federal holiday in 2021. Gordon-Reed, a Texan and descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas, tells an unabashedly honest history of her home state, giving us a new and necessary narrative.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
A history book for adults, Four Hundred Souls starts in 1619 when the first ship carrying “some 20-and-odd Negroes,” the first African people to arrive in Virginia. This is a comprehensive history that doesn’t focus only on Juneteenth. A unique feature of this book is that it is a community history, told by 90 brilliant writers in five-year increments. Having so many voices telling the history of African Americans adds to the richness of this collection, featuring various perspectives and different writing styles from historical essays to short stories to passionate polemics. It will give you new insight into the history of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s second novel, published posthumously, uses the holiday as its title, which highlights a central theme of the novel – community. The novel tells the story of Senator Adam “Bliss” Sunraider on his deathbed after an assassination attempt summoning reverend Alonzo Hickman where he asks the minister to “tell me what happened while there’s still time.” Their conversation tells the story of their memories, including secrets long held silent, painful memories, and childhood joy.
The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology by Kianna Alexander, Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, and Piper Huguley
With a forward by talented trailblazer Beverly Jenkins, this anthology contains four historical novellas with happily ever afters set during an often overlooked period of history. While these novellas are fiction, the historical detail in each story leaves the reader knowing more about Juneteenth than before. Each of the stories celebrates Black love and revolves around freedom, civil rights, overcoming the atrocities of slavery, and hope. The anthology is informative without being teachy, accurate without focusing on suffering. Romance does important work showing how everyone is deserving of love, and this collection showcases that beautifully.
This Juneteenth, I hope you can find some time off work so you can read more about our newest federal holiday. If you want to learn more about African American history, check out these 15 nonfiction Black history books and 15 new-ish Black history books for kids.