Jun. 20, 2021

The Real Essence of Juneteenth

For over 150 years, African-Americans have gathered on June 19 — the day known as Juneteenth — to celebrate freedom.

The holiday is rooted in Texas, signifying the day in 1865 when, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general who had made his way to Galveston delivered the news that slavery had been abolished. Texans who had been chattel erupted in triumph.

Many of the largest Juneteenth celebrations are still held in Texas: old-school parades with horses and souped-up cars; local bands playing; tender, fatty brisket on hand. But the day is observed widely all over the South, and in cities throughout the United States. Street fairs spring up, where R&B and gospel acts perform, and where you will find proud dandies like Mr. Harris forming lines for fried fish, spareribs, or Fred Flintstone-style turkey legs. The Harlem Renaissance singer Gladys Bentley described the scene in her anthem “Juneteenth Jamboree”: “Dressed to kill from head to feet. Baskets full of food to eat. You can’t get this on your TV.”

Some families hold picnics or cookouts. Smoke clouds billow from drum grills, scalloped-edged paper plates are pried apart, and self-appointed Southern potato salad queens set out bowls covered with crinkled aluminum foil. Chargrilled oysters may turn up on the buffet table in Mississippi; meaty baked beans appear in Kansas; in the Carolinas, add heaps of vinegar-tinged pulled pork. For dessert, pies.

Red foods are customary for Juneteenth, the crimson a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage. Watermelon, Texas Pete hot sauce and red velvet cake are abundant. A strawberry pie wouldn’t be out of place. Spicy hot links on the grill — most commonly made with coarsely ground beef, and artificially dyed red — are a Juneteenth staple, too, and “a distinctive African-American contribution to barbecue,” said Adrian Miller, a James Beard award-winning author and soul food expert.

Red drinks, like strawberry soda and Texas-made Big Red pop, generally rule the Juneteenth bar, and link present to past. “Two traditional drinks from West Africa that had a lot of social meaning are kola nut tea and bissap,” Mr. Miller said. (Bissap is more commonly known as hibiscus tea.) Both came to the Americas with the slave trade; red kola nuts and hibiscus pods colored the water in which they were steeped.