Juneteenth has been celebrated for more than two decades in the small town of Fayette, Missouri. Started by a historic Black church, the annual festivities have grown into a four-day event that includes a fashion show, a feast of pork steak and ribs, and other cultural displays.

But while the holiday celebrates the triumph of Black Americans over slavery, event coordinator Timothy Jackman approaches it with an inclusive mindset. In addition to youth ball games and Juneteenth Jeopardy, organizers try to fold in ethnic foods from other cultures, Jackman said. In this predominantly white town, he wants to attract neighbors of all races to the celebration.

“Oddly enough, I heard from a non person of color this year that they didn’t know Juneteneth was for white people and that it was just for the Black community,” he recalled. “It just goes to show you that we still have some work to do.”

The decades-long effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday reached its goal last year, more than 150 years after freed Black Texans began the tradition. Before President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in June 2021, only six states had made it an official paid state holiday — Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Long before that, Black people such as Texas native Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” fought to make June 19 a national holiday. 

Historically, Black churches and segregated parks served as meeting places for Juneteenth festivities, which included soul food, dances, clothing, and praise and worship. While it was not universally recognized by Black Americans, Juneteenth events were largely held in Black spaces and reflective of Black cultures.

But with the adoption of the federal holiday, interest in celebrating Juneteenth has expanded and diversified. Many longtime observers of the holiday have encouraged that development. For them Juneteenth is a recognition of American history that should be open to all people. 

“We’ve always tried to make it an inclusive event and try to bring awareness to those people who are not people of color,” Jackman said. “We’ve said it wasn’t just all Black people, but there were white folks that were an important part of our history.”

Others fear that the new popularity of the holiday has led to commercialization and will undermine the cultural significance of June 19. In recent weeks, many have called out white-led businesses and groups for profiting off of Black culture and history with Juneteenth-themed products and events. They argue that the federal holiday has overshadowed calls for more substantial policies to address systemic racism.

“I hate to sound like this person, but I feel in many ways that the celebration of Juneteenth has become a way [for white people] to silence [Black] critics,” said Dwonna Goldstone, associate professor and the director of African American Studies at Texas State University. “It seems like it’s a way to placate black people into accepting — ‘See, we’re celebrating Juneteenth and we’re acknowledging what happened’ — but without any real changes.”

Cookouts and hair shows

More than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed enslaved people in the Confederate states, Union soldiers told Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, that slavery ended. The delayed announcement sparked Juneteenth, celebrations of freedom that spread through Southern Black communities in the years that followed, defined by the sounds, flavors and aesthetics of Black cultures.  

Those early influences are still seen in Juneteenth events across the country, particularly in rural communities where the holiday has been recognized for years, if not decades. 

In Hugo, Oklahoma — a predominately white town of about 5,000 people — Clinton Crawley helped start the first Juneteenth event nearly 15 years ago. Organizers raised about $2,000 to host a barbecue in the park, he recalled, with a spread of brisket, cole slaw, baked beans, red hot links, and juice for about 200 people. 

Similar to the early traditions, Hugo’s celebration included oral history lessons from elders in the community and a parade, which now offers cash prizes for the best ATVs, motorcycles, animals, automobiles, and floats. It’s an intergenerational festival, where residents of all ages compete in a dance contest and play games such as musical chairs and tug of war. At the opening ceremony, a local pastor explains the purpose of Juneteenth and the community joins in to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem.

Crawley, a retired army veteran and mechanic, has handed the reins for this year’s event to his daughter Katrina Bills, who has served on the town’s Juneteenth planning committee.

“What pushes me to really be on this committee for so long is my love for the community. I have a love for the betterment of our community and of our Black people,” Bills said. “They don’t realize what our ancestors went through for us to even be able to celebrate this day. … We want them to understand what it took.”

In some communities, the federal holiday has reignited interest in observing Juneteenth. In Eatonton, Georgia, Monique Hines decided to revive the celebration in her hometown this year. The event will include singing of spirituals and honoring of local World World II veterans and a Tuskegee Airman. 

The most exciting activity, she added, is the African print-themed fashion and hair show. They will crown a Little Miss and Little Mister Juneteenth and allow school-age children to model in the fashion show.

“We’re gonna try to take it back to the old school Bronner [Bros.] hair shows where you saw the hairstyles that you’re not gonna see on the street like the avant garde style,” said Hines, a loctician in nearby Macon. “One of the styles that I’m going to do with the locs is actually turn his locs into a crown. It’s going to be really fun.”

But even in this central Georgia town of fewer than 7,000 people, there are questions about how to recognize the holiday — and whether to celebrate at all.

Fashion designer Shayna McLaren said she didn’t know Juneteenth existed until a few years ago. This year will be her first time attending an event, and only because she was invited to Eatonton’s fashion show.  Owner of Kraev Fashions in rural Loganville, Georgia, she is tasked with creating original tribal-inspired fashion pieces such as kente cloths for the event. 

Otherwise, she is unsure if she would be celebrating at all.

“This is going to sound shallow, but I just don’t know about it. It just became the trending thing,” McLaren said. “Our culture hops on everything that’s trending and it’s really annoying.”

Celebration or commercialization?

Some are still skeptical about what Juneteenth’s rise in popularity means for the authenticity of the holiday. In the run-up to the holiday, there has been backlash to Walmart selling Juneteenth Ice Cream and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum offering Juneteenth Watermelon Salad. Both organizations have since issued apologies and removed the items from their shelves. 

In Arkansas, a “leaked” Juneteenth soul food and market festival flyer featured an all-white panel of judges and sparked outrage on social media.  That event was canceled.

Goldstone said that such incidents have distracted from the need for more discussions on policy changes and for white people to engage in anti-racism work related to economic inequality and housing security during Juneteenth.

“Malcolm X said in his autobiography that white people need to form their own organizations and do anti- racism work with other white people,” Goldstone said. “Until they are willing to put their lives on the line, as they did during the Freedom Rides when white people were getting beaten up like Black people were, I just don’t see much changing.”

For some Black groups, the holiday provides an opportunity to join with white neighbors and educate the masses about Juneteenth and the nation’s history.

Lue Lockridge-Lane, an organizer for the event in Fayette, said it was important to grow the “ministry beyond the pulpit” in honor of Juneteenth. Their celebration has expanded because people want to be more involved in political and social justice issues affecting Black people, she said. The event has served as the catalyst for those conversations.

“It’s not just the African American community, but the community as a whole having the dialogue and checking and seeing what are the types of things that we need to do,” Lockridge-Lane said. Asking questions like “‘If you could make a difference or change in this community, what would that change look like?’ That part of it to me is what’s been stimulating the added interest in Juneteenth and excitement about it.”

Although there’s disagreement on how Juneteenth should be celebrated, the focus should be on the celebration, said Linda Reed, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Houston. There are so few opportunities that Black people have to really celebrate their culture and history, she noted.

“The more you talk about it, the more it becomes a part of you,” Reed said of the holiday. “And everybody should know the history of it.”

Aallyah Wright is Capital B's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice