Last year, President Joe Biden announced that June 19th, shortened to Juneteenth (which is also known as Emancipation Day and/or Freedom Day), will be officially celebrated as a federal holiday. That means that this year, as we continue to learn how to live with Covid-19, Juneteenth will be observed for the first time by many businesses and organizations.
The historical significance of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the events of June 19, 1865. On that historic day, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Texas, and announced the emancipation of all the enslaved African American people.
This year, since Juneteenth has been formally integrated into our federal holidays, you may have noticed various symbols of Blackness (such as the “Black Power” first or the Pan-African flag) being displayed in storefront windows, on neighbor’s lawns, and hanging from balconies.
Another symbol that may not be as familiar to you, depending on who you are, is the red and blue flag depicting a sort of white star in the center. This is a flag designed specifically for Juneteenth. If you’re curious about its backstory, keep reading!
The Juneteenth flag
The flag was designed by community organizer and activist Ben Haith, but is known to most as “Boston Ben.” He created the flag in 1997 because once having learned about Juneteenth, Haith felt that the day needed its own representation.
“I was just doing what God told me,” Haith said in an interview with Capital B Atlanta. “I have somewhat of a marketing background, and I thought Juneteenth, what it represented, needed to have a symbol.”
Haith drew out the first draft that he knew he wasn’t happy with, but every Juneteenth he would raise the flag near his son’s middle school in Roxbury, a majority Black community in Boston.
He knew exactly which colors and symbols he wanted to incorporate in the flag design, but didn’t finalize it until he met illustrator Lisa Jeanne-Graf who responded to his ad in a local newspaper to help come up with the final flag. The flag you see today was finalized in 2000.
The design elements
Though many people represent the colors of the Pan-African flag on Juneteenth (red, green, and black), the color combination of the Juneteenth flag is different. The Juneteenth flag actually shares the same colors as the American flag: red, white, and blue. Haith had revealed in the past that these colors were chosen on purpose, to remind Black Americans that yes, they are descendants of enslaved people, but regardless they were American.
“For so long, our ancestors weren’t considered citizens of this country,” Haith explains. “But realistically, and technically, they were citizens. They just were deprived of being recognized as citizens. So I thought it was important that the colors portray red, white, and blue, which we see in the American flag.”
That said, Haith says he understands why some people are reluctant to use the red, white, and blue Juneteenth flag to celebrate and commemorate the freedom of enslaved people. The debate around these colors and the Juneteenth flag stems from the feeling that these colors could be interpreted as an honor to the oppressors of Black Americans.
However, when Haith is asked about the skepticism around this symbol, he says: “We had relatives who went to war to fight for this country. We put a lot into this country, even when our ancestors were enslaved. They worked to help make this country an economic power in the world.”
There are two meanings to the star depicted in the middle of the flag. Firstly, the star is meant to represent Texas, the Lone Star state, and the place where Union General Gordon Granger informed enslaved Black people of the Emancipation Proclamation declared by President Abraham Lincoln.
Secondly, the star symbolizes the freedom of enslaved citizens, as the use of stars was key to helping enslaved people escape to freedom according to Steven Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
“When people were escaping down the Underground Railroad… they used stars to navigate where they were at, when they were going up and down,” Williams explains.
The outline around the star and arch
The outline around the star is meant to represent a nova (an explosion in space creating the appearance of a new star). This symbolizes the freedom of Black Americans and the new beginning that freedom brings with it.
An arch divides the red and blue sides of the flag, which also represents new beginnings by bringing to mind the image of a horizon on a new day.
Almost 200 years after enslaved people in Texas were given the good news of their emancipation, Juneteenth is finally recognized as a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed this change into law in 2021, following demands for racial progress after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Before president Biden recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday, individual states had already begun treating it as an official holiday. The first state to do so was Texas in 1980.
In the wake of the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, cities across the country were called to remove and rename monuments and institutions that honor historical Confederate leaders.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that at least 160 Confederate symbols were taken down in 2020.