Featured photo: Vendors sell Juneteenth-themed shirts during the 2022 festival. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Princess Johnson, a dancer and owner of Greensboro-based Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet, did not grow up celebrating Juneteenth. Even as a Black woman who grew up in the South, the holiday was something only a few people in her circle celebrated.

“I didn’t know what it was exactly. Growing up in the United States, everything’s about the Fourth of July,” she said. 

Princess Howell Johnson

Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, as many Black Americans call it, commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops brought word to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas that they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. But the news of their freedom arrived late — about two years late.

The delayed knowledge and recognition of their very own Independence Day continued to follow Black Americans through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. The US’s first mandatory Black history courses only arrived in the 1940s in Chicago public schools.  

Johnson’s tenuous connection to the holiday is common amongst many Black Americans. A Gallup poll conducted on May 18-23, a month before Juneetenth became a federal holiday in 2021, revealed only 37 percent of Black people surveyed knew “a lot,” about the holiday and 32 percent knew “a little.” 

In her experience, events surrounding the holiday weren’t made all that visible. Juneteenth, for decades, was celebrated in churches, backyards, neighborhoods or smaller, independent events in Greensboro. 

It took more than100 years for Black people nationwide to unite and celebrate their shared history together in 1968. In the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and led by the Poor People’s Campaign, which continues to fight for equality for Black people and other marginalized people, the first large-scale Juneteenth celebrations were organized at the Solidarity Now! Rally in Washington, D.C.

Public knowledge of the holiday largely went back under the radar until 1980 when Texas became the first state to declare it a paid state holiday. It wasn’t until 2020, in the middle of the pandemic and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement, that Juneteenth garnered national attention again. 

That was right around the time Johnson was inspired to celebrate Juneteenth. 

“We were just in the middle of a pandemic, dealing with a lot of racial tension, and you’re seeing a lot of performative actions that were happening around, especially around Black culture and things that were important to us,” she said. 

Johnson wanted to ensure that Juneteenth still belonged and resonated with Black people. But most of all: She wanted it recognized by the entire city.

In 2020, she began talking with local Black artists and activists April Parker, Joseph Wilkersonson III, Nicole J. Walker and Lavinia Jackson. Together, they would become the Juneteenth GSO committee. Not only was the group successful in coordinating Juneteenth events across the city of Greensboro, they helped officially establish June 19 as a paid city holiday. 

Friends in city council

According to Greensboro Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, it didn’t take much convincing for city council to approve Juneteenth as a city holiday. Hightower, who represents District 1, collaborated closely with the Juneteenth GSO committee, specifically with Parker — who had been organizing the Juneteenth Black Food Truck festival since 2014.

The committee’s requests seemed reasonable to Hightower: The group wanted more support for more organized city events and a paid day off to make it official. 

“It wasn’t like an epiphany or anything,” said Hightower. “There have been communities in Greensboro that have always celebrated Juneteenth.” But none to the scale and coordination that Juneteenth GSO wanted to coordinate. 

Sharon Hightower greets the crowd during the 2023 Juneteenth Festival in Greensboro. (photo by Brandon Demery)

After the then-city manager crunched a few numbers — because being an official holiday means city employees get a paid day off — they found that it didn’t cost the city much at all. After a couple months of effort, on July 22, 2020, the Greensboro City Council unanimously voted to make Juneteenth a city holiday

About a year later, on June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became a paid federal holiday. Two days later, Juneteenth GSO went live with their virtual events. 

Johnson explained that at first they only had a budget of $3,000 — an unspent grant they received from the local arts council. But as things slowly transitioned from hybrid to in-person events, the Juneteenth GSO Committee found other sources of support and funding. 

Johnson, for example, applied and received a $60,000 grant — paid in increments of $15,000 over four years — from the city. Hightower also continues to advocate for more city support and funding for the holiday. 

But sometimes it’s just the little things. When the city did begin to open up for in-person events, Johnson came into contact with Creative Greensboro, who helped the committee with things like banners and signs. 

“It means a lot for the city to do that for us. They only used to do those things for the Fourth of July,” said Johnson.  “But now, everybody knows it’s Juneteenth.”

Helping create a Juneteenth event was such a transformative experience for Johnson that she doesn’t go out of her way to celebrate the Fourth of July anymore.

“It is extremely hard for me to celebrate the Fourth of July now,” she said. “Knowing what I know now.”

It’s a sentiment that Hightower understands deeply. She has always celebrated Juneteenth. 

“We have to recognize how important June 19th is. We as a culture of Black People in 1776 were not free. That was not our freedom day,” said Hightower. 

This year, Johnson and the rest of the committee will continue to organize Juneteenth events including the Arts Legacy Awards, which she created, Gospel Superfest, Black Food Truck Festival, and more from June 14-16. 

Generations of activism

Though North Carolina has recognized Juneteenth since 2007, it’s only recognized as a “floating holiday,” and only paid for state workers who claim it has “cultural, religious or personal significance,” to them. It’s one of three of the 28 states in 2023 — and Washington, DC — that recognize it as an official public holiday, yet has these limitations. 

Although all states have at least observed the holiday once, adopting it as the official holiday has been historically slow. In 1980, Texas fittingly became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. It took another eleven years for another state to recognize it as an observed holiday and until 2020 for it to become a permanent holiday.

Juneteenth’s modern iterations are largely driven by activism. Activist Opal Lee, now 97 years old, is credited for making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The same enduring spirit has inspired younger generations of Black activists like Juneteenth GSO to make it official, at least in their cities. 

Activist and Juneteenth GSO organizer April Parker speaks to the crowd during the 2023 festival. (photo by Brandon Demery)

Some cities are ahead of states in establishing Juneteenth as a permanent public holiday.  That’s the case in Oklahoma City, Okla. Led by activist and entrepreneur Jabee Williams, Juneteenth on the East has been an integral public celebration in Oklahoma City’s historically Black Eastside. The city began recognizing it as a public holiday last year, while the state still hasn’t. 

Some activism can have a cross-generational effect. Horace M. Peterson III, an archivist and historian brought Juneteenth to Kansas City, Mo. in the 1980s. Though he died in 1992, his work lives on through JuneteenthKC. The City Council voted to make Juneteenth a paid city holiday in 2021. It became a state holiday in 2022. 

In Topeka, Kansas, a group of college-aged friends called the Ladies of Melanated Excellence, organized a Juneteenth Jamboree in 2020 at a local park. But like many other Black residents and activists in Topeka, they were inspired to organize for Juneteenth after attending protests earlier that month.

In this case, the popularity of the holiday spurred the state to take action before the city. In October 2023, Kansas declared Juneteenth a state holiday. Topeka City Council has yet to recognize it as an official city holiday despite Juneteenth’s growing public presence. 

The Black food truck festival is one of the biggest events that is part of Juneteenth in Greensboro. (photo by Brandon Demery)

The process of activism is not perfect. Johnson is the first to admit that even with city backing, she and the rest of Juneteenth GSO have to strike a balance. The tone of their events has to be equal parts joy and history. They need to grow their reach, but also cultivate community. And most of all, it has to be for Black people.

“We want it to be city-funded, but we don’t want it to be city-run,” said Johnson. “We can easily get whitewashed if we’re not careful.”

As for their allies in the city council, Hightower says it’s good to see that this generation of activists is not taking their history for granted and reaching out to older folks like her. 

“Young people give us energy. In this instance, it’s the Juneteenth Committee. But sometimes when us elders can be part of the process, we can do good things together,” said Hightower. 

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