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Celebrating Juneteenth, the Emancipation of African Americans
Suheir Sheikh

It's a day many activists have worked to raise awareness about for decades.

Last year, the U.S. made history when U.S. President Joe Biden officially designated Juneteenth a federal holiday. The holiday is celebrated on June 19th and celebrates the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in the U.S. It is the 12th legal public holiday in the nation. The day is recognized as a state holiday or observance in 47 states  and Washington, D.C. This year, the holiday marks its 157th anniversary of Black American Independence day.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans who got their freedom in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, more than two years after slavery was officially outlawed. 

In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved in the south. While the Emancipation Proclamation applied to slaves living in states not under Union control, many were not told they were free until the end of the Civil War.  Before Juneteenth became a federal holiday in the U.S. it was a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington.  For more than 150 years, the holiday was observed by the Black community with concerts, parades, educational events, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

While recognition of Juneteenth gained more traction after Minneapolis police arrested and killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man while in police custody in 2020, the struggle for racial justice is ongoing as African American communities continue to see it as an unfair system. 

African Americans still have their struggles with racial injustices, they also are still being associated with racist tropes such as the watermelon. 

The Water Melon Market at Charleston, S.C. by James E. Taylor, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 15, 1866. Credit: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

The Water Melon Market at Charleston, S.C. by James E. Taylor, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 15, 1866. Credit: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Early-1900s Pickaninny caricature depicting a black child eating a watermelon.

Early-1900s Pickaninny caricature depicting a black child eating a watermelon.

A postcard showing an African-American girl eating a large watermelon. Credit: Ullman MFQ, New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A postcard showing an African-American girl eating a large watermelon. Credit: Ullman MFQ, New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What does Watermelon have to do with African American injustice and race?

The stereotype of African Americans that were fond of watermelon came when slaves were freed. Former slaves grew, ate, and sold watermelons, which made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. In return, southern Whites, who believed Blacks were flaunting their freedom, made the fruit a symbol of the Black people's perceived laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. 

The key message of the watermelon stereotype was that Black people were not ready for freedom. Democrats during the 1880 election season accused the South Carolina State Legislature, which had been a black majority during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, of wasting taxpayer’s money on watermelons for their own refreshment.

Juneteenth is a day many activists have worked to raise awareness about for decades. Hoping one day, the African-American community will find the racial justice they deserve, leaving behind all racist stereotypes. 

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