Juneteenth: African American History and Culinary Heritage

A faded black and white photograph of a group of African Americans in formal dress.

Juneteenth Celebration, Emancipation Park Houston, 1880s. Courtesy Houston Public Library Digital Archives

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 but it has been celebrated in African American communities throughout the United States for more than 150 years. Juneteenth is short for “June nineteenth”. The historical background of Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3, which proclaimed freedom for all enslaved people in Texas. This proclamation came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and it effectively marked the end of slavery in the last Confederate state. More than 250,000 people were freed. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, slavery was abolished in the United States. 

The following year in 1866, freedmen in Texas initiated the first annual celebration of "Jubilee Day" on June 19. The Juneteenth tradition soon spread to other states as African Americans migrated from Texas to other parts of the country. Juneteenth holds great significance as it represents the resilience, struggle and triumph of the African American community over the institution of slavery. It symbolizes the long-delayed realization of freedom for African Americans in the United States. It is a time to remember and honor the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought for equality and justice. 

The observance of Juneteenth varies across different communities and regions. It is often marked with parades, picnics, family gatherings, music, art, and cultural events. These celebrations not only highlight the historical significance of Juneteenth but also provide an opportunity to recognize and appreciate African American culture, heritage, and contributions to American society.

A glass of ice raspberry red juice surrounded by fresh raspberries, ice cubes, and half a lemon.

Juneteenth celebrations often include a variety of foods that have roots in African culinary traditions. These dishes have been passed down through generations and reflect the diverse culinary heritage of African Americans. Red foods are an important feature of a Juneteenth menu. According to culinary historian Michael Twitty, the importance of red foods reflects the connection of the formerly enslaved to the African continent. Texas was one of the final states to take part in the slave trade, and the color red held significant cultural significance for different peoples that came in the later years of the trade. These were the Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin and Togo as well as the Kongo of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo and Gabon. In these cultures, great philosophical and spiritual importance were attached to the color red. Twitty explains that it had various meanings, such as sacrifice, transition and power. Smoked, sauce-covered barbecued meats are a red food traditionally considered one of the most important features on a Juneteenth menu. 

A skillet filled with vibrant collard greens, diced red peppers, and black eye peas. A plate of cornbread sits to one side.

Accompanying this main dish are side dishes or ‘prosperity meals’. These meals and side dishes include ingredients like black-eyed peas, corn, collard greens, cabbage, and yams - all of which are believed to symbolize desirable fortunes like wealth, gold, and good luck. These ingredients were also easily harvested and stored during the colder months, so enslaved people could prepare them for their own meals. Today, they remain vital to the culinary traditions of soul food and the American South. 

Some of the dishes served at Juneteenth celebrations reveal even more complex histories and contributions many enslaved Africans brought to this country. For example, red beans and rice is a southern dish served at Juneteenth celebrations that many are familiar with. Not only does this dish bear the important color red, its use of rice speaks to the African contribution to agriculture in the Americas. 

Professor Judith Carney has extensively examined how the origins of rice culture in the Americas was initiated by African slaves. Historically, African women – particularly rice farmers – braided rice seeds into their hair to ensure their survival and preserve their cultural heritage on their dehumanizing transport across the Atlantic to the Americas. These seeds were transported to the Americas along with them, where they became a vital part of rice cultivation from Brazil to South Carolina. Research reveals that the success of rice farming in this region was largely due to the knowledge and expertise of West African women. They played a crucial role in growing the plant on a massive scale for the slavery-driven plantation economy. Red beans and rice is thus a fitting symbol of the strength and resilience of African traditions.

A woman holds a bunch of stalks of rice in her hand.

As Juneteenth celebrations continue to evolve and incorporate diverse cultural and dietary preferences, it is common for people to prepare vegan or plant-based foods to honor the occasion. This plant-based reimagination of traditional dishes reflects the fast growing popularity of plant-based diets amongst African American communities. When preparing vegan foods for Juneteenth, individuals may draw inspiration from traditional African and African American cuisine and adapt recipes to be plant-based. There are countless possibilities for creating vegan dishes that honor the spirit of Juneteenth. We hope you enjoy this recipe and join us in celebrating African American freedom, community and cultural heritage. 


Carney, Judith. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the AmericasCambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Glasco, Billy R. “Juneteenth: The Celebration of a New Freedom in America” National Archives, 2021 https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/2021/06/16/juneteenth-the-celebration-of-a-new-freedom-in-america/

Jean-Phillipe, McKenzie. “The Traditional Foods of Juneteenth Carry a Rich History, Dating Back Centuries” Oprah Daily, 2022 https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a36479941/juneteenth-food-traditions/ 

Pelaccio, Linda (host). “Juneteenth: History and Food of the Celebration.” A Taste of the Past, Episode 381, Heritage Network Radio, 2022 https://heritageradionetwork.org/episode/juneteenth-history-and-food-celebration

“The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth.” National Museum of African American History & Culture, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/historical-legacy-juneteenth