This year, Juneteenth is being officially recognized in New York and New Jersey as both a federal and state holiday. The day commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas—the last Confederate state in the west—to announce that 250,000 enslaved people were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
But even though Juneteenth has now been recognized by the U.S. government, alongside many state and local governments, it was celebrated informally for decades. One of those celebrations, Juneteenth NYC, is marking its 12th anniversary. Founder Athenia Rodney spoke with WNYC’s Sean Carlson about working for years to raise awareness of Juneteenth, and her mixed feelings about it becoming a national holiday.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Juneteenth has been celebrated for 126 years, but it's only burst into the scene in recent years, especially after the last summer's protests after the murder of George Floyd. How are you feeling about this moment right now?
It has been very overwhelming for myself because for so long, I felt like I was pulling teeth to really get people to learn about Juneteenth. And now it's like Juneteenth overload, like everyone is doing something to celebrate Juneteenth, everybody's talking about Juneteenth. So, really exciting, but definitely a little overwhelming.
How did you first learn about Juneteenth? It's one of those things now that people are talking about it so much, a lot of people say they were never taught about it. So did you grow up celebrating it?
I did not grow up celebrating it. I heard about it from my best friend and her family. They would celebrate Juneteenth, Black Solidarity Day, Kwanzaa, you know, and I would always be like, “oh, you're just trying to get another day to be off of school,” because it wasn't something that was recognized anywhere else. It was really just recognized in her household.
But as I grew up, I saw the disparities, right? I'm like, I am a Black person and I don't know about all that is my culture.
Part of our narrative this year is that we are more than just slavery, because in the books, that's all they really talk about, right? They talk about the slave trade. They talk about what happens when slaves got here and things that happened to them. But we're not talking about when we got emancipated. Like, how was that story? What did that look like? What was that transition? Those stories are missed, and that's I think where Juneteenth comes in. It's a moment where black people are able to kind of feel proud, you know, to have some ownership. we need to become a part of the fabric of the society and not just the others.
There is some debate within the Black community about when to actually celebrate emancipation. Whether that be Juneteenth, or the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, or the day that the Civil War ended, which effectively guaranteed emancipation.
Overall, I'd say let's celebrate it all. There's not just one day. Juneteenth is going to come, it's going to, it's this weekend. And then after this weekend is over, then what? Then what's the conversation like? So for me, when I'm celebrating Juneteenth, I'm always putting an educational component on it. My tagline is “education, entertainment, and empowerment.” Those are the three pillars that span, for me, for Juneteenth, because entertainment is what's going to bring people in the door, right? That's what we love to do. We love to be entertained, everybody. When you come in the door, I'm going to educate you, and then when you leave, I'm going to empower you to do something, to make a difference, to make a change.
How do you feel about Juneteenth being officially recognized now as both a federal and state holiday? Does that concern you? Are you worried about it just becoming another three-day weekend?
I definitely am. I felt it this year. As the holiday came, it was like everybody was putting Juneteenth on everything. Somebody was having a Juneteenth barbecue, the Juneteenth skate party, the Juneteenth bicycle groups, the Juneteenth this, the Juneteenth that, and I was like, okay, how many people actually know what Juneteenth actually is?
It’s not even [been] 24 hours and it's already out the floodgates. I'm glad that they put forth this bill, but there are so many other bills that also have been on the table that are not being recognized, like anti-lynching laws. So again, my real focus is how can we change the story so that we're not just, like you said, a three-day holiday, that everyone is just eager to go out and celebrate.