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Juneteenth in the Words of Black Athletes & Entertainers

Sunday marks the second time Juneteenth will be celebrated as a federal holiday. Boardroom surveyed athletes and entertainers on what it means to them.

Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. The 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing more than three million enslaved African Americans in 1863. However, with the executive order signed in the midst of the Civil War, news traveled slow. Southern confederate followers resisted freeing the slaves. It wasn’t until two years later that federal troops had to arrive in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure all enslaved people were freed. 

Boardroom spoke to over 10 athletes, as well as spoken word artist Brandon Leake, about when they learned about the holiday, how it makes them feel, what Juneteenth means to them, and what they would like to see moving forward. 

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When did you learn?

In school systems across America, children are lucky if Juneteenth is even glossed over as they read through textbooks. In a Gallup survey done last year, 62% of Americans said they know “nothing at all” or “a little bit” about Juneteenth.

“I don’t think I learned about Juneteenth until college because in high school, in our history classes, it was never really talked about,” said Elizabeth Williams, a Washington Mystics forward. “In class we were reading different books and having discussions about the things that are left out of history classes and how the history of slavery is watered down, and we never acknowledge how the last enslaved people weren’t free until so many years later.” 

Williams is part of the majority of people who weren’t taught about the holiday. In some cases, though, Juneteenth runs through the blood of families. 

“My entire life, we celebrated Juneteenth. My family being from Columbus, Mississippi, they always celebrated it in the South,” said former NBAer Caron Butler. “We’ve always celebrated it, and now as a family, [we] have been proud sponsors for Juneteenth day for the last 20-plus years. It’s a big deal to us and our family.” Butler hosted several panels in 2020 centered around Juneteenth. 

How did it make you feel?

Learning about the day can open the door for many feelings to walk in and roam the mind of those who did not know. Happiness, empowerment, pride, and even guilt were experienced by athletes that spoke to Boardroom.

“Once I learned about Juneteenth, I felt a variety of feelings,” said LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “Obviously, with it being a historic moment in history, I felt a sense of pride and to embrace my heritage and the history of my people. A sense of remorse for everything they had to endure. A little bit of guilt for not knowing much about the holiday and not exploring more and for just taking life for granted. They fought so hard for people like me to have a life of freedom, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful.”

The pride that Acosta mentioned fuels Brianna Pinto, a midfielder for the NWSL‘s North Carolina Courage. “I think it makes me feel empowered and excited for the future but also motivated to make change along the way,” she said. “Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, and I think it’s something that more Americans should come together to celebrate. We call ourselves the land of the free, yet on Juneteenth, it wasn’t officially that way until that day. It took many more years for real freedom to make itself true. But I think there is still growth to be done.”

There is also the uneasiness of celebrating Fourth of July, when America declared independence over 300 years ago in 1776. At that time, slavery still ran rampant throughout the colonies. True independence for African Americans did not even become a thought until June 19, 1865. 

“There’s honestly a lot of holidays that I never understood why we was involved in,” said NBA champion, actor and rapper Iman Shumpert. “Don’t get me wrong. I still continue to do them, and I understand the excitement for a kid and the innocence of it. But I just feel like Juneteenth is for us. Real recognize real, and that’s for us. It’s a good feeling that more people are aware of it and are starting to be more and more proud of it.”

Connecticut Sun guard Dijonai Carrington was more blunt. “After learning about Juneteenth, I felt dumb for celebrating July 4,” she said, noting she learned about it in college. “Now I feel liberated to know my history and stand up for it. It also reminded me that this wasn’t that long ago. Everyone always tries to say slavery was [a] long [time] ago, and Black people should get over it, but in the scope of our world’s history, it was not that long ago.”

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What does it mean to you today?

With U.S. President Joe Biden making Juneteenth a federal holiday last year, the days of it flying under the radar are over. Even if people do not understand why they have a day off from work, there is hope that more people will learn — in time. As America goes through growing pains, in terms of teaching more about the day, it already has a special place in the heart of so many. 

“This holiday means everything to me, that’s why I wear a Black Lives Matter fencing mask. So people don’t forget it,” said two time Olympian fencer Miles Chamley-Watson.

“We’re celebrating the idea of mental liberation. That part, to me, is what I’ve always been drawn to it for. It’s really a time to reflect on our journey here. This day represents to audit what we have going on and how we can collectively move forward now that we are free,” said former NFL safety and two-time Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins.

The holiday has also given brands the opportunity to educate their customers. Gathering people who are educated and authentic in celebrating Juneteenth can produce beautiful results. Incoming Harvard basketball recruit Gabby Anderson is a testament to this. Anderson partnered with Walmart on a beauty campaign that features Black women-founded brands. 

Titled Beauty in Color, the collection saw Anderson commissioned to paint portraits of each founder that will be displayed in 1,500 Walmart stores. “[Juneteenth] means a lot to me because of what I was just a part of. I want to see more Black creators express some of their Black magic with brands that can elevate them like I was,” Anderson said.

How do you celebrate?

As with all federal holidays, Americans will receive a day off. People choose to do a wide variety of things with the 24 hours they’re off the clock. Whereas some choose to rest and relax on Juneteenth, others choose to celebrate. 

Alycia Baumgardner, the current WBC and IBO super featherweight champion plans on being festive: “Gathering with my friends and knowing that we have our day. We are able to celebrate the progression of where we were and where we are now. Celebrating is a part of history so we can continue to celebrate and know why we are celebrating it.”

Atlanta Dream forward Monique Billings shares the same sentiment.

“You always have to have some good food, so we’re for sure going to have a cookout,” she said, laughing with excitement. “It’s really about self-care, taking time and creating space for myself to reflect and honor the day. The fact is, I am becoming my ancestors’ dream, and I’m living out those dreams. I don’t want to take anything for granted.”

What do you want to see moving forward? 

A federal holiday brings recognition to the day, but it doesn’t necessarily mean progress. Many athletes hope that the new light on the day will bring forth more eagerness to learn about how all people can make the world a better place by ending racism. 

“I appreciate that we’re acknowledging it as a federal holiday, but I think there is more to be done with our legislators to really implement meaningful change,” said Brianna Pinto. “There are still elements of systemic racism that affect every facet of our society. So yes, we can take this day and acknowledge it and how meaningful it is for many Black American and the legacy of slavery finally coming to an end. But at the same time, this should be a push for everyone to make meaningful change at every level of our society, so that we can protect individuals and give them the God-given rights that they were afforded when they are citizens of the United States.”

Washington Commanders’ defensive end Efe Obada wants to see more education around Juneteenth: “It should be a mainstream celebration in schools and businesses just like the Fourth of July. It’s a very significant moment in American history, and people should be educated on it. It also lends itself to wider discussions about racial inequality, racism, and the issues Black Americans face, which I feel are very important in today’s climate.”

And spoken word artist Brandon Leake doesn’t mince words.

“I care little to nothing about Juneteenth being a federal holiday. I care about Juneteenth being a landmark moment for us year after year — to look at how we can come together in local communities and assess what is necessary for us to grow as a people. I would love it if Juneteenth was not only a day that we utilize the celebration but we come together the days and weeks afterward to figure out what our plan is as a culture. Lets collectively look toward the future and building.”

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