Juneteenth celebrates freedom with food and family


Women ride in a Juneteenth parade in Houston in 1900. / Photo courtesy of Angela Shelf Medearis

“Texas—it’s like a whole other country,” a popular tourism ad states.

I’m not a Texan by birth, but I’ve lived in Austin, my husband’s birthplace, for more than 40 years. I had to learn the local slang, decipher the Texas twang, navigate the proper use of “ya’ll” and learn how to celebrate Juneteenth.

Juneteenth began in Texas as a joyous celebration of hope and a new beginning of freedom from slavery for thousands of African-Americans. The June 19th observance, one of the largest and most popular Emancipation holidays, is marked by events, parades, barbecues and family  gatherings.

It celebrates the date when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston with the news that the Civil War had ended and all slaves were free. Lincoln sent Granger and his troops to Texas because slave owners in the state refused to obey the Emancipation Proclamation. Granger delivered Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

The Juneteenth c0mmittee of 1900 is pictured in East Wood Park, Austin, Texas. / Photo courtesy Austin History Center

The Austin, Txas, Juneteenth c0mmittee of 1900 is pictured in East Wood Park. / Photo courtesy Austin History Center

This news got to African Americans in Texas more than two years after Lincoln’s official Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. When African-American Texans heard the news they danced and shouted for joy, or fell to their knees.

There are a number of versions of why it took so long for the message of freedom to reach Texas. An old slave folktale says that Lincoln sent the news from Washington by a Union soldier who rode all the way to Texas on a stubborn mule. It is more likely that the slave owners knew about the Emancipation Proclamation but were unwilling to follow it and loose their free labor. 

Most slaves had been denied education and could neither read nor write. Information was transmitted orally. So the month and date of the emancipation news were combined and shortened to Juneteenth.

Early Juneteenth festivities included barbecues, fishing, parades and rodeos, many of which continue today. Juneteenth foods were centered around the barbecue with special-occasion meats such as lamb and beef provided.

This year, the Austin planning committee wanted to have a nod to traditional Juneteenth foods but make them lower in fat, sugar and salt. I prepared a healthy barbecue lunch for 425 people at the Blackland Community Center Health Expo  with chopped barbecue beef sliders with low-sugar barbecue sauce, coleslaw with apple cider vinegar, apples, cucumbers, celery, purple and green cabbage and a vegetable pasta salad with roasted vegetables and tofu. I also cooked a healthy Juneteenth lunch last year with a soul food spread of black-eyed peas, sweet-and-sour watermelon and cucumber salad and a sweet potato pie made with agave syrup.    

A Union "soldier" rides oin a Texas Uneteenth parade. / Photo courtesy of Angela Shelf Medearis.

A Union “soldier” rides in a Texas Juneteenth parade. / Photo courtesy of Angela Shelf Medearis.

The first anniversary of Juneteenth was celebrated throughout Texas in 1866. African-Americans in Austin, Houston and Mexia, raised money to buy parkland to hold future Juneteenth celebrations and picnics. In 1872, Rev. Jack Yates, a Houston minister and community leader, helped to raise $1,000 to buy 10 acres of land that the African-American citizens named “Emancipation Park.”

Juneteenth was actively celebrated until the late 1960s. A Juneteenth revival began in 1975, and the celebration became an official Texas state holiday in 1979.

Juneteenth celebrations began to spread beyond Texas as African-American Texans moved to other states, and festivities have become traditional throughout the country. In Milwaukee, Wis., Juneteenth is celebrated with a street festival, a parade, a barbecue dinner, African-American plays, dances, art displays, carnival rides for children and a health fair. There recently was a Juneteenth celebration in Utah, and as far away as Paris, France.

Angela Shelf Medearis prepares a Juneteenth lunch

Angela Shelf Medearis prepares a 2013 Juneteenth lunch in Austin, Texas. / Photo courtesy of Angela Shelf Medearis

Although the Juneteenth holiday has changed since it was first celebrated in the 1800s, many things have remained the same. The celebration is an important day for families and friends to gather together to remember the past, acknowledge the accomplishments of the present, plan for the future and to eat lots of good food.

I’ve totally fallen in love with this Texas-style emancipation celebration. I particularly enjoy gathering with family, friends and neighbors to watch the parades and sample all the delicious dishes. This year, we’re celebrating Juneteenth at our neighborhood community center. I’ll be preparing a special menu that retains the traditions of the past, with an eye toward the flavors of the present — jerk chicken, grilled greens and a corn-black bean salad.  You don’t have to be a Texan to cook and eat the food.


Makes 6 to 8 servings

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Angela Shelf-Medearis' Jamaican-style chicken fits the Juneteenth mode of barbecuing.


  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • ½ cup molasses
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1-5 Scotch bonnet, serrano, or Thai bird chiles, seeded and minced, to taste
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 peppercorns
  • 1-inch piece cinnamon, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons ground sage
  • 1 tablespoon ground thyme
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 5 pounds chicken pieces


In a medium glass bowl, combine the oil and vinegar in a medium glass bowl. Stir in the orange and lime juices, molasses, soy sauce, cilantro, green onions, garlic, chilies, bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, sage, thyme, allspice, pepper and nutmeg.

Place the chicken pieces in a sealable plastic bag and pour the spice mixture over them, coating each piece well. Place the sealable bag in a baking pan and place the chicken in the refrigerator to marinate 12 hours or overnight, turning once or twice to coat pieces.

Allow the chicken pieces to come to room temperature before grilling. Discard the marinade, keeping some for basting. Heat the grill until the coals are somewhat white with ash; the flame should be low. Place the chicken on the grill and cover with the lid. Grill for 30 to 35 minutes, turning pieces to cook evenly. Baste pieces with remaining marinade. Serve immediately

Removing the seeds from the peppers reduces the heat, but wear gloves when handling the peppers as the oil will get on your hands and can be transferred to your eyes.

Makes 6 servings

Calypso Corn and Black Bean Salad

A corn and bean salad is a colorful addition to a Juneteenth barbecue, and easy to make ahead.


  • 1 (10-ounce) package frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans black beans or white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 small fresh jalapeno chili, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • ½ cup firmly packed chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and chill 1 hour or overnight to combine flavors.

Grilled Greens

Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collards and mustard greens are an excellent source of many nutrients. Greens are extremely high in vitamin A, iron, and contain some calcium. Greens also are packed with antioxidants. And they're delicious. This is an easy way to have greens with your barbecue.


  • 7 cups tightly packed trimmed spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens or a mixture of all
  • 1 cup of purple cabbage
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper


Heat the grill.

In a medium bowl, combine the greens, red cabbage, water, oil, vinegar, garlic, bell pepper, onion, salt, sugar and cayenne pepper. Place two 24-inch pieces of heavy-duty foil on top of each other and mound the seasoned greens in the center. Bring up two sides of the foil to meet in the center, pressing the edges together and then folding the foil over twice to make two half-inch folds. Allow room for the packet to fill with steam and expand. Fold the edges of each end together twice to make two half-inch folds. Press the edges together to seal.

Place the packet on the grill and grill for 10 to 12 minutes. Using oven mitts to protect your hands, remove the packet from the grill and open it carefully away from your face, allowing the hot steam to escape. The greens should be wilted and cooked through.

, , ,

2 Responses to Juneteenth celebrates freedom with food and family

  1. Danita June 18, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Yummy. Juneteenth presents a fabulous opportunity to celebrate freedom, heritage, and FOOD!!! Thanks, for sharing healthy alternatives using traditional cuisine.

  2. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal June 20, 2013 at 5:02 am #

    Danita, sadly, I have never experienced Juneteenth. What are some of your favorite foods for the celebration? Share recipes?