On January 1, 1863, the day of freedom finally arrived. As magnificent as the tidings were, news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t travel with the speed of today’s modern information. Instead it made its way slowly across the American South. Yet, inexorably, like a rising tide that enveloped the land and with the sureness of inevitability, the word passed through the tobacco fields of Virginia, through the rice-growing marshlands of the Carolina and Georgia Low Country, through the cotton fields of Mississippi and Georgia. It sped along the canebrakes on Louisiana’s sugar plantations, where some of the slave owners were themselves Black. Finally, it made its way into the hinterlands of Texas.
“The people of Texas are informed in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” So read General Gordon Granger from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston on June 19, 1865. The day of Jubilee had arrived. It had taken its time getting to Texas, but two years, six months and 19 days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, those who toiled in slavery’s fields in the Lone Star State could finally lay their burden down. A signature on a piece of paper had transmuted the lead of despair to the gold of hope. Freedom had finally come!
The commemorations of the momentous day, the ancestors of today’s Juneteenth festivities, grew and flourished. At their inception, they were times of reflection and featured prayer meetings, the singing of spirituals, and religious services giving thanks for deliverance from bondage. The survivors of America’s original sin sat proudly at head tables as guests of honor. Gradually the heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving offered up by preachers in sonorous tones became secularized and Juneteenth became a time of cake walks and parades complete with Black cowboys and high-stepping horses. Today’s festivities are more likely to include beauty competitions and baseball games than the sermonizing of the past.
Throughout it all, the backbone of the festivities has always been the table. Picnics, barbecues and fish fries have traditionally been hallmarks of the festivities. The Texas holiday has gradually seeped into the national mind. The day became an official Texas state holiday in 1980 and since then, many other states have recognized it either as a state holiday or a day of observance. This year’s reexamining of the country’s F-graded record on race relations has brought Juneteenth to the forefront of our national consciousness.
As a native New Yorker and one who has spent her fair share of decades on the planet, I was not born into the traditions of Juneteenth. Instead, I came late to them, as did many of my fellow Northerners. My most memorable Juneteenth was June 19, 2002, when I was fortunate to spend it in Texas, speaking at the Juneteenth celebrations of Dallas’s African American Museum. There, despite a hazardous air alert and over-90-degree temperatures, folks came out to spend the day. Coolers were unpacked, lawn chairs pulled into convivial circles, and portable grills fired up. People gathered at the state fairgrounds to listen to blues music, sample several types of homemade barbecue and slurp down gallons of the super-sweet red soda that has become traditional to the holiday. (There are many explanations for this, including the red hue being representative of the blood shed during enslavement, the use of red in West African religious practices and the color replicating West African traditional beverages prepared from kola nuts and hibiscus pods.) As I walked through the fairgrounds with the museum’s director of education, I was struck with the thought of how far we’d come but equally mindful of how far we’d yet to go.
Now, though, I’ve spent more than a few Juneteenths celebrating and look forward annually to the communal feasting. While barbecue may be more traditional, in my neck of the woods folks also celebrate the holiday with fish fries or picnics and outdoor gatherings surrounded by friends and family. I’ve selected a menu from those celebrations to share here, including crispy fried porgies (a type of fish also known as scup), a colorful coleslaw and potato salad with sweet pickle relish and hard-boiled eggs—add some sweet corn on the cob to complete the menu.
There’s no more fitting reason for celebration than our Emancipation, but it is undeniable that in years past, some folks got so involved in the eating that they forgot the reason for the rejoicing. This year, packing a copy of the Proclamation as well as Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech—“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”—would make us all better able to remember and honor all of those folks past and present whose pain and privation allow us to hope for a better future.
Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA). She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
All recipe food styling and photographs by Joy Howard. Portrait of Jessica B. Harris by Rog Walker of Paper Monday.