Breanna Reeves |
At 89 years old in 2016, Ms. Opal Lee walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. in order to gain support from Congress to recognize June 19 — Juneteenth — as a national holiday. Lee made the trek by traveling two and a half miles each day to symbolize the two and a half years Black Texans in Galveston waited to receive the news of their freedom on June 19, 1865 — two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
After collecting 1.5 million signatures for her petition, Lee’s determination and efforts paid off. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
But as Juneteenth becomes more widely recognized across the U.S., companies have identified Juneteenth as another holiday ripe for monetization as large corporations like Walmart advertise Juneteenth-themed merchandise or organizations that promote Juneteenth watermelon salads.
Capitalizing on Black history
Hardy Brown II, chairman of the Black Voice Foundation Inc. and collector of African American artifacts, isn’t surprised by companies capitalizing on the holiday, “This is the society we’re in.”
Brown explained how our society commercializes holidays that should be held in reverence, from Easter to Father’s Day to the Fourth of July, and Juneteenth is no different. He believes Lee’s work to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday was important, but said unintended consequences are a result.
“You’re going to put together something and people are going to take advantage of it, and that’s what our system does,” Brown said. “I think the bigger question starts to become, what do people want to learn out of this?”
While there were hundreds of Juneteenth events taking place across the Inland Empire, from parades to flea markets, Brown explained its important the public is educated about the history of Juneteenth, about the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S. and have conversations within their communities.
Torrina Harris is the program director at the Nia Cultural Center, a Galveston-based youth community center and a committee member of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, a Galveston-based non-profit organization that seeks to amplify the legacy of Juneteenth through art, advocacy and education.
In her role, Harris does work centered around advocating for Black children, youth and families, supporting the intersection of advocacy and art and finding ways to allocate resources to historically excluded communities.
“The thing that really sticks out to me the most when [commercialization] happens is that it’s taking away from Black businesses that have more of a cultural tie to [Juneteenth], especially when we look at larger companies like Walmart, even Target — even though we like to cut Target a break,” Harris said.
Harris said companies that benefit from the public celebrating Juneteenth, while upholding inequitable corporate policies, are opportunistic. She explained how companies and people who have no real understanding of the mental, economic and generational impact of slavery can profit off of it is like “a spit in the face.”
“It’s really another one of those instances where it’s like your culture is worth benefiting from, but not worth celebrating or not worth honoring,” Harris said.
The significance of this day
While the history of Juneteenth becomes more visible each year, local communities are working to recognize the holiday while also educating the public on the lasting impact of slavery still has on Black communities.
On May 24, 2022, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted to mark June 19 each year as Juneteenth, an official county holiday.
In a statement emailed to Black Voice News last month, in honor of Juneteenth the county encouraged residents to “take time on that day to reflect upon how each of us can practice and promote equity for all people and celebrate that race, ethnicity, heritage, or belief must never stand in the way of freedom.”
As a curator and collector, Brown educates and shares African American history and artifacts across the United States Brown also leads an annual Underground Railroad study tour as part of Footsteps to Freedom, a program that retraces the journey taken by freedom seekers from Kentucky to Canada.
“We should be teaching everybody the truth about what happened. They need to understand exactly [how] it went and how it became a holiday,” Brown said, referring to the history of Juneteenth, and the larger context of slavery.
Brown encouraged the public to seek out exhibits at local institutions in San Bernardino or in Riverside that accurately details Black history, like the John M. Pfau Library at California State University, San Bernardino which provides educational resources on the history of Juneteenth as well as materials on the Black history of the Inland Empire on their website and in person.