The holiday Juneteenth, on June 19, celebrates the end of the enslavement of African Americans. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when residents of Galveston, Texas, finally received the news that the Civil War had ended three months prior, and that slavery had been abolished. This life-changing news arrived more than two and half years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation that guaranteed Black Americans their freedom.
Sarah Ashley recalled this very day in an interview in the late 1930s: “I was 19 years old when the burst of freedom came in June and I got turned loose [sic]” (see Library of Congress Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1). Ashley had been born enslaved, separated from her family and bought and sold between Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
The burst of freedom Sarah Ashley recalled was first commemorated by Black Texans in 1866 and they brought their Juneteenth celebrations to other parts of the country as they moved. Texas was the first to make Juneteenth an official holiday in 1980. On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became the United States’ 11th federal holiday. Today, Juneteenth is a holiday observed in all 50 states as of February 2022, when South Dakota adopted it (learn more about Juneteenth and state adoption years from the Congressional Research Service).
The racist nature of American slavery as wielded by white people against people with African heritage, and its longevity, is significant: within Europe and the Americas, the United States and Brazil were the last to ban slavery. Slavery – forced labor – had not been uncommon in ancient civilizations and was largely a punishment for crimes, debt, and to those captured in wars. But the word slavery alone does not convey the brutal horrors that occurred in the American colonies and the U.S. In their acclaimed autobiographies, formerly enslaved authors detailed their tortures and losses as well as their achievements. After New York State resident Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped and sold into slavery, he wrote in “Twelve Years a Slave”: “My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!” Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813 – 1897), born enslaved in North Carolina, pointed out in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” something that resonates today: “It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one’s native country.” The end of enslavement did not mean equality and safety for Black people in America.
Among the now nearly 20 states that mark Juneteenth as an official holiday (state employees have the day off) are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
The holiday Juneteenth is an occasion to reflect on the struggle for freedom and the joy of it, and the fulfillment of our nation’s ideal of equality and opportunity for all. To celebrate Juneteenth, The WNET Group, which brings public media to the New York City tri-state region, is excited to present a free in-person screening on June 17 and a variety of films and programs across its public media outlets, including THIRTEEN, NJ PBS and ALL ARTS.
Juneteenth on MetroFocus
MetroFocus airs weeknights at 6 p.m. and 12 a.m. on THIRTEEN as well as weekends; see schedule for all air times, including on WLIW21 and NJ PBS. All broadcasts livestream.
Wednesday, June 15: The Arts and Preservation
The murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer sparked a movement, not only of support for Black people in America but also a re-examination of our history on race, and making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It is with that awareness that the multimedia platform ALL ARTS will present a Juneteenth Marathon. MetroFocus welcomes Jonathan McCrory, ALL ARTS Artist in Residence, director of the film, “The Roll Call: The Roots to Strange Fruit,” and Artistic Director of National Black Theatre in Harlem to discuss his work. His film will air on ALL ARTS on Juneteenth, Sunday, June 19 at 6:30 p.m. See the preview in the Stream Now section, below.
Guest Michael Henry Adams, a historian and preservationist, is an expert on the relationship between Brooklyn and the Underground Railroad. In February 2021, after decades of local activism, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously voted to designate a small brick home in Brooklyn as an historic landmark. In the mid-19th century, 227 Duffield Street was owned by abolitionist couple Harriet and Thomas Truesdell and it is thought that their home served as a temporary stop for those escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. After being landmarked, local activists have been urging officials to create a cultural destination in Downtown Brooklyn that will honor the area’s rich abolitionist history. Watch Michael Henry Adams’ segment now.
Friday, June 17: Rev. Al Sharpton
Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and author, will discuss his life work and book, “Righteous Troublemakers: Untold Stories of the Social Justice Movement in America.” Watch now.
Monday, June 20: Clive Smith
New York Times best-selling author Clint Smith discusses his book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History Of Slavery Across America.” He shares nine places that memorialize or distort their link to the legacy of slavery, from Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va., to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. Watch now.
Friday, June 17: Free Screening of Great Performances: Merry Wives
This Shakespeare adaptation by Joyce Bioh, directed by Saheem Ali, takes the only play Shakespeare set in England and moves all its characters uptown to Harlem! It stars Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff, Pascale Armand as Madam Ekua Page and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Nkechi Ford. THIRTEEN filmed this Shakespeare in the Park production and broadcast it earlier in May of 2022. Stream Merry Wives now or laugh out loud with them from a special Harlem rooftop. The free outdoor screening on Friday, June 17 at 8:30 p.m., presented by THIRTEEN and NYC Parks, requires an advance RSVP. Learn more and RSVP.
Best Juneteenth Programs to Stream Now
Treasures of New Jersey: Peter Mott House
Treasures of New Jersey is a production of NJ PBS, the PBS network serving New Jersey. In May 2022 the series premiered The Peter Mott House Underground Railroad Museum. Visit The Peter Mott House in Lawnside, NJ, to discover its important role and that of its freedom fighter owners in the days of the Underground Railroad. In the 1800s the area was built by a free Black community. Hear from historians and community leaders about the importance of preserving landmarks like this to honor both local and national African American history. Watch the half-hour episode now.
The Roll Call: The Roots to Strange Fruit
Conceived by National Black Theatre’s Jonathan McCrory, this visual, sonic opera journeys through the Black experience of slavery in a rhythmic, three-part performance that weaves together historical documents like auction-block fugitive and find-your-family notices. The film looks at these documents as a space of reclamation, healing, and as an intervention to unearth the indelible impact of the journey of Black people in America. It is anchored by a solo dance performance by LaWanda Hopkins and choreographed by Rickey Tripp.
Jonathan McCrory is a Harlem-based artist and an ALL ARTS Artist in Residence. Stream McCrory’s 23-minute program now on ALL ARTS. Tune in to the broadcast on Juneteenth, Sunday, June 19, 6:30 p.m. on ALL ARTS.
State of the Arts: Posing Black Beauty
Presented by NJ PBS, State of the Arts featured Black beauty as seen through the camera lens in March 2022. Curator and historian Deb Willis’ book and breakthrough exhibition, “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” has been traveling for over 10 years. It’s based on her book “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present,” featuring snapshots, documentary photographs, and works by artists, all exploring beauty in Black culture. See more State of the Arts episodes and segments on NJ PBS.
Say It Loud: Juneteenth: Freedom and the Fine Print
Say It Loud is a PBS Digital Studios series that celebrates Black culture, context, and history. Hosts Evelyn from the Internets and Azie Dungey give a comedic take on identity and pop culture, from Black pride movements to Black Twitter shenanigans. The show explores the complexity of Black experience and finds joy in the many ways Black folks have influenced American life. In Juneteenth: Freedom and the Fine Print, the hosts explain the origin of Juneteenth and look at the parallels of Black liberation work around Reconstruction and Black liberation work, today. For the “Fine Print,” they focus on voter suppression, mass incarceration, and policing, with a special highlight on the work of leaders pushing for change. Watch Season 1 episodes.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed on PBS NewsHour
For the first observation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, PBS NewsHour met with historian Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction book, “The Hemingses of Monticello.” She grew up in Texas, the state where Juneteenth originated, and took on a new kind of writing for “On Juneteenth,” a mix of Texas history and personal memoir. “It’s an interesting thing to think about how historical events actually shape your life,” the Harvard professor says. This report is part of NewsHour’s arts and culture series, CANVAS.
Great Performances: Merry Wives
This Public Theater stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy is set in Harlem and stars Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff, Pascale Armand as Madam Ekua Page and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Nkechi Ford. Stream now or watch it on the PBS and THIRTEEN Explore apps.
Tuesday, June 21 at 8 p.m.: The First Twenty: Dear Artist
The ALL ARTS original series The First Twenty presents Dear Artist. Broadway actress Vinie Burrows, costume designer Qween Jean and other Black artists reflect on their personal and collective journeys as activists, educators, and entrepreneurs in a film created by Ngozi Anyanwu and Lelund Durond Thompson in partnership with National Black Theatre. See how to watch on ALL ARTS.
Wednesday, June 22 at 8:30 p.m. on NJ PBS: The Price of Silence: The Forgotten Story of New Jersey’s Enslaved People
An exploration of slavery in New Jersey with moving stories from historians and the descendants of enslaved people from across the state. Part one of two.
See how to watch NJ PBS in the tri-state area.
More PBS Programs Celebrating Juneteenth
We are part of PBS and recommend you browse PBS.org for more documentary, public affairs, and arts programming that celebrates Juneteenth.