‘It’s keeping the truth:’ Savannah residents on how we can celebrate Juneteenth authentically

Hundreds of gatherers head into the water during Tybee Island Juneteenth Celebration.

Credit: Jason Miccolo Johnson/Savannah Morning News

Combined ShapeCaption
Hundreds of gatherers head into the water during Tybee Island Juneteenth Celebration.

Credit: Jason Miccolo Johnson/Savannah Morning News

Juneteenth — June 19 — is a few days away and it’s the second year the holiday is being celebrated as a federal holiday, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the U.S.

It marks the announcement to enslaved Black Texans that they were finally free — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the Civil War ended.

National holiday was decades in the making

Although the holiday originated in Galveston, Texas, Georgia Southern University student Destiny Craig said it wasn’t until this year that she grew familiar with the holiday and its significance as none of her family celebrated what is also known as Black Independence Day. The little she did understand about the holiday came from TV specials and word of mouth.

For her, the discovery process she’s embarked on has been an “indescribable feeling.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Destiny Craig

Credit: Destiny Crag

Destiny Craig

Credit: Destiny Crag

Combined ShapeCaption
Destiny Craig

Credit: Destiny Crag

Credit: Destiny Crag

“I'm a product of my ancestors' freedom so that just let me know I have to celebrate because they did that for me. So I'm just basically celebrating their contribution to me being here today,” Craig said.

Craig’s discovery of the holiday likely aligns with the reality of many people in the United States. In 2020, amidst what some have called a racial reckoning that tied into the widespread protests over police brutality and racial injustice, special attention was placed on the teaching of Black history and the significance of Juneteenth.

Though Juneteenth was newly minted as an official federal holiday in 2021, the push to have the day recognized federally has been a long time coming. For decades, activists worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth, one of those being Opal Lee who has been referred to as the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” In 2016, Lee walked from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a federal holiday.

Combined ShapeCaption
Opal Lee is referred to as "the grandmother of Juneteenth."

Credit: Opal Lee/Special to the Register

Opal Lee is referred to as "the grandmother of Juneteenth."

Credit: Opal Lee/Special to the Register

Combined ShapeCaption
Opal Lee is referred to as "the grandmother of Juneteenth."

Credit: Opal Lee/Special to the Register

Credit: Opal Lee/Special to the Register

However, generations of African American communities have celebrated the date for years before its sanction, hosting numerous activities and events across the country. On Craig’s first year celebrating, she wore a Juneteenth shirt and sang Beyonce’s “Black Parade” around the house.

Savannah celebrations are “special”

Savannah resident Calvin Walton celebrates by doing research and planning events and programs. But the New York native said the celebrations in the South, notably in Savannah, have rang different for him.

“I think what makes the celebrations in Savannah different and special is the whole Gullah Geechee piece that's involved with Juneteenth celebrations. One thing that I enjoy about living in Savannah is the fact that the Black people here, they have a really strong sense of who they are culturally. They understand themselves,” Walton said.

Combined ShapeCaption
Calvin Walton is a lecturer in the college of education at Georgia Southern's Armstrong Campus.

Credit: Calvin Walton

Calvin Walton is a lecturer in the college of education at Georgia Southern's Armstrong Campus.

Credit: Calvin Walton

Combined ShapeCaption
Calvin Walton is a lecturer in the college of education at Georgia Southern's Armstrong Campus.

Credit: Calvin Walton

Credit: Calvin Walton

“Gullah Geechee folk are very, very important in terms of understanding their historical African American experience because they've got that direct cultural connection to Africa through the language and through the food. And they're so powerful and forceful in their efforts to make sure that that's included and embedded in everything. I think that makes it extra special.”

Fear of Juneteenth commercialization

In the declaration of Juneteenth as a national holiday lies controversy. Big brands such as Walmart and Dollar Tree have utilized the recognition as a way to commercialize the holiday, prompting backlash over marketed items like a Juneteenth flavored ice cream — one with similar flavors to a Black-owned brand — and other party items.

It’s not uncommon to see a national holiday given this treatment, but with Juneteenth, there are worries that the holiday with so much significance for African American communities will become distorted and disingenuous.

“Juneteenth is a people's holiday. And traditionally, it's been used by Black people to advance discussions around social justice in the United States, and now that it's a national holiday, it's sort of taking on a life of its own. It's becoming very commercial,” Walton said.

Combined ShapeCaption
A carton of Walmart's Juneteenth ice cream.

Credit: Courtesy photo

A carton of Walmart's Juneteenth ice cream.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
A carton of Walmart's Juneteenth ice cream.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

He fears that people will stop celebrating because of its official stamp, a discussion he’s heard a few times.

How do you keep the authenticity of the holiday amidst the commercialization? Walton and Craig agree that it's by focusing on the freedom and truth of the day with meaningful events while also still recognizing that it’s an American holiday.

“I think that keeping the authenticity is just understanding that it's a Black holiday and within that it's Black nationalism. Buy Black, we celebrate all things within that being Black,” Craig said.

“It's keeping the truth. ... I think that the oral story is really the biggest part of it, making sure that everybody understands that it's about our ancestors more than anything else.

Laura Nwogu is the quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at LNwogu@gannett.com. Twitter: @lauranwogu_

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: 'It's keeping the truth:' Savannah residents on how we can celebrate Juneteenth authentically


MEET OUR PARTNER

Today’s story comes from our partner, Savannah Morning News. Savannah Morning News provides daily news coverage on Coastal Georgia. Visit them at savannahnow.com or on Twitter @SavannahNow.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at nicole.williams@ajc.com.