On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger stood in Galveston, Texas, and read aloud news that would mark a turning point in American history. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the orders stated. It was a hallowed day. Two and half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, all enslaved people in the former Confederate States were finally declared free.
The date became known by names like Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, the Nineteenth of June, and later, Juneteenth, and the celebration that ensued in Texas the following year was the beginning of an annual tradition among the newly freed people. Black people held prayer meetings, sang spirituals, and dressed up in their Sunday best. As observances gained momentum and Texans migrated to other states, celebrations grew. Around this time, more states’ emancipation celebrations began, but Juneteenth grew to become the most well-known. In some places, on June 19, pageants and rodeos took hold, and in other areas, jubilant parades began where people marched in honor of enslaved people. And then, there was the food.
“It was always a celebration, a party, a cookout of some sort,” says Jerome Grant, who was the inaugural executive chef of Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and is the current executive chef at Jackie, also in Washington, DC. Barbecue pits roared with meaty ribs, and flaky fish was fried until golden and crispy. Tables were loaded with Southern favorites like deviled eggs. The most crucial addition to the feast was the color red, which showed up in a variety of dishes. “The color of choice was red because it signified the blood of ancestors,” Jerome says. Ruby-hued punches, barbecue brushed with burgundy-colored sauce, juicy summer watermelon, and red velvet cake became synonymous with yearly observations.
Barbecue pits roared with meaty ribs, and flaky fish was fried until golden and crispy. Tables were loaded with Southern favorites like deviled eggs.
Growing up in the ‘90s, Jerome, who has Filipino and Jamaican roots, didn’t learn much about Juneteenth, and few did. It wasn’t something taught in schools or widely recognized. Thanks to hardworking people, Juneteenth has found renewed interest in recent years, and in 2021, it was officially named a federal holiday, which Jerome says is “days late.”
“For so long, we didn’t have a holiday that was celebrated and observed throughout our government,” Jerome says. “It’s important to highlight the contributions of African Americans and what they’ve accomplished as well as what they’ve helped build.”
This year on June 19, communities across the country will continue to gather to honor the formally enslaved people, the hardships they endured, and their innumerable contributions. It’s Jerome’s hope that more people will take the opportunity to learn about Juneteenth and observe its significance. “It should be highlighted, spoken about, taught in schools, and celebrated within communities,” he says.
Jerome’s Juneteenth menu pays tribute to the foods that have been part of observances for more than a century. His freshly fried redfish is reminiscent of a classic Southern fish fry, while the zippy watermelon and cheese salad and smoky, bacon-topped deviled eggs are reimagined versions of Juneteenth traditions. Celebrate within your own family and community this Juneteenth by trying this scrumptious spread.
Jerome Grant is the executive chef at Jackie in Washington, DC.