Juneteenth has Gone National—We Must Preserve its Local MeaningsRoundup
tags: African American history, memorials, public history, Juneteenth
Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard and a 2011 MacArthur fellow. She is the author of several books, including The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts and All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, which won a National Book Award.
It’s been two years since Juneteenth became a federal holiday, one we can celebrate together as a nation. The signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in 2021 was an expression of real progress in the collective understanding of Black struggle that reinforced our national ideals of liberty and dignity. But I confess my ambivalence. I am worried about what official national recognition might do to what has always been a community-based holiday.
My own memories of Juneteenth, like those of so many others, are distinctly local. They are rooted in a sense of place.
When I was young, that place was Eden Park, high on the hills along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, where I would spend the day contentedly with my mother and the many other families who attended. Years later, after I formed a family of my own with my spouse (who is not Black or Midwestern, but Native American from Montana), discovering where Juneteenth events were held, who organized them and who turned out was like holding a black light to the invisible-inked map of the present and past African American community.
When we moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to start jobs at the university there, we kept an eye out for the flyers popping up on market bulletin boards and wooden street posts. Following these notices like a marked trail, we wound up at a park in a neighborhood near the Huron River and railroad tracks. The celebration we found there was small and free of charge, with clusters of families gathered to cook out, listen to music on boomboxes and enjoy the summer day outdoors. We felt welcome and accepted.
The location of this small event, it turned out, was an old Black neighborhood that was changing over time as residents from different racial backgrounds and income levels moved in for the river views. But even amid this demographic flux, the area retained its historic character. It was here that Black University of Michigan students who faced housing discrimination near campus in the late 1800s and early 1900s could rent rooms in boardinghouses and where older Black homeowners still had vast lots where they cultivated thick gardens full of emerald collard green rows. If it had not been for that Juneteenth event, my husband and I would have missed the historic and communal character of this neighborhood, the place where we went on to buy our first home in the city two years later and rock our infant twins to sleep.
Juneteenth festivities have long represented tucked-away spaces, deeply local, somewhat surprising and fitted to the variances of Black life in America. They have supported micro-cultures of Black crafts and local economies of neighborhood enterprise, fostering the kind of community exchange that will be most sustainable in the future. Whether they are rural or urban, their local specificity, and their hiddenness from those who would misunderstand their gravity, have made Juneteenth events special and enduring.