UW News

June 17, 2021

‘An occasion for unapologetic Black joy, community connection, and reeducation’: UW’s LaTaSha Levy discusses Juneteenth

UW News

A red, black and green flag hangs outside a building.

The Pan-African flag marked its centennial in 2020.Thomas Cizauskas


Juneteenth not only marks a specific event on a specific date — June 19, 1865 — it’s also a celebration.

On that date, two months after the Confederate army surrendered, and more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general accompanied by nearly 2,000 soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read what are known as General Orders No. 3, officially informing enslaved people of their freedom. Ever since, communities have been celebrating Juneteenth with events ranging from family get-togethers to large concerts, festivals and parades. This week, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a national holiday.

But there are myths and omissions surrounding the telling of Juneteenth and that period in history, according to LaTaSha Levy, an assistant professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington, and it’s critical to understand the past and present need to fight for, and celebrate, Black freedom.

“Juneteenth celebrations are a good time, but they also serve to educate and reeducate the community about Black history and local struggles,” said Levy. “It has been a time for Black communities to reflect on the myriad ways in which Black life and opportunity are continuously curtailed in this nation. Alongside the celebration and jubilation is often a call to action.”

Levy discussed the history of Juneteenth, and its connections to current events, with UW News.


How should people observe Juneteenth?

For me, Juneteenth is a time to celebrate African Americans who fought to save the Union and to liberate themselves from generations of chattel slavery. Juneteenth continues to be a day in which Black families and communities come together in the spirit of jubilation and liberation to honor the valiant fight of our ancestors and a longstanding tradition of Black resilience.

There are no rules for observing Juneteenth, but for people who are not Black, I would encourage education and action. Everyone should read “Black Reconstruction” by W. E. B. DuBois, which gives a brilliant account of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as rigorous documentation of what he calls “the propaganda of history.” Then do something! There are battles still being waged on all fronts. Find out where you can lend your resources and talents and fight.


What do people not know about Juneteenth?

The account of General Granger’s actions in Galveston, and the common understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation, perpetuate historical myths and notions of white saviors.

The national interest in Juneteenth means that we have to be ever-vigilant in how we tell this history. It is our responsibility to tell the full story and think critically about what Juneteenth reveals to us about the history of the Civil War and racial slavery.

For example, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed no one. Lincoln had no real authority to free the slaves in the Confederacy. It began as a threat only to the states in rebellion and was signed on Jan. 1, 1863 as a military strategy. Slavery was not abolished, officially, until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. What the Emancipation Proclamation did do was proclaim it legal for Black men to serve in the federal military. This is what made all the difference. Black men had organized and trained themselves to fight from the very start, but they were turned away until the Union was desperate enough to enlist them and to free the slaves in rebel states. Black women also played a critical role as volunteers, scouts and spies.

LaTaSha Levy

What we also tend to ignore about Juneteenth is that white resistance to Union victory —- not the slow traveling of news — is why Granger and his troops, including Black soldiers, made their way into Texas in the first place. It was the last state of the Confederacy to recognize General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, usually considered the official end of the Civil War. And it was the 29th Colored Infantry Regiment that defeated Lee at Appomattox and likely traveled to Galveston with Granger. But we never learn about the 29th Colored Regiment, nor do we talk about Black contributions to winning the Civil War and saving the Union.



How is Juneteenth taught in school?

The curriculum does not usually teach even the basics of African American history and is derelict in teaching Black contributions to the Civil War. Perhaps growing awareness around Juneteenth will inspire educators to offer lessons on this holiday. But if they follow the typical narratives of Black passivity and a lone white savior and slow-traveling news, then teaching Juneteenth will do more harm than good.

Our K-12 teachers must be empowered to teach the ugly, messy truth of our history, so that our students understand the world they live in and are inspired to transform it. Young people should not have to wait until they take a college course in ethnic studies or African American studies to learn this history.


Washington is one of a handful of states that have designated Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Is that significant?

I am having trouble identifying the significance of Washington, or any state for that matter, adopting Juneteenth as a paid state holiday. We will have to wait and see what comes out of it. Will it raise the level of consciousness around the persistent struggle for Black people in this nation, including in the state of Washington? What is the state doing about gentrification, unaffordable housing, police violence, racial disparities in the cannabis industry, and miseducation in our schools?

A paid state holiday may offer a day of relief and thanksgiving for Black employees who are too often navigating the stress of anti-Black racism at work. For others, I’m not sure. I fear that this national recognition on the state level will simply open up more avenues for commodification and co-optation rather than serious engagement of what it means to be free and what it will take for this nation to recognize and respect the civil and human rights of Black folks. Like MLK Day, state recognition of Juneteenth will probably lead to the watering down of history. We’ll need to combat that.


A group of people poses outside for this photo from 1900.

An Emancipation Day celebration was held in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 1900.Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

As a scholar of African American history, can you describe the current, and growing, awareness of and movements for social justice, and against police violence and systemic racism?

Awareness around Juneteenth exploded this past year as a result of Black resistance to state violence and anti-Black racism. After the world was forced to grapple with the ruthless murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the shooting of Breonna Taylor, it was all too much. People who may have been unmoved or unbothered by these routine killings over the last several years, began to take notice because of the global pandemic that ultimately stilled enough people to stop and pay attention.

Then in late May, the world watched an officer of the law slowly and intentionally murder George Floyd as he pled for his life and bystanders pled along with him. The wickedness of the matter at that point, and in that moment, was undeniable. And the people rose up. And not just Black people. People from all backgrounds, all across the world, took to the streets in a global pandemic and said enough! And what a shame. It was a shame that families and communities had to risk their health in the middle of a public health crisis around a deadly virus. They poured into the streets anyway to protest police violence.

It was in this deadly context that Juneteenth 2020 attracted greater attention. For the first time, masses of non-Black people cared to pay attention. Institutions and corporations held forums and scheduled speakers to learn about Juneteenth.

Notably, the Trump campaign scheduled a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the most horrific events of racial terror in the country in 1921. People resisted the blatant disregard for Black life, and what appeared to be the sanctioning of white violence.

Trump took credit for popularizing Juneteenth by saying “no one knew about it.” Well, for 155 years, Black people knew about it and have been celebrating the power of our people, and have not needed validation from the state or anyone else to do so.

Our work is not done. The challenges for our times are vast and the stakes are high. In 2021, we see very clearly, without a shadow of doubt, escalation in the assault on voting rights. We see the rise and normalization of white nationalism in the political mainstream. We see the calculated demonization of #BlackLivesMatter and a deliberate campaign to misrepresent the movement. We see propaganda intended to grossly distort the scholarly tradition of critical race theory in order to justify white resentment and fear of antiracist education. For our times, Juneteenth is an occasion for unapologetic Black joy, community connection and reeducation. It is also an opportunity to get organized because the struggle for Black freedom continues.


For more information, contact Levy a levyl@uw.edu.