Juneteenth: Laverne Cox, Ludacris, Todrick Hall and More on the Meaning of June 19

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ET asked several stars about what the day means to them.

Juneteenth -- also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day -- commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation when slaves in Texas were finally freed on June 19, 1865. 

Once a day only celebrated in Texas, recognition has grown within the Black community and beyond as awareness for it increased, particularly over the past decade. In 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, it became bigger than ever as the protests against systemic racism that stemmed from the killing of George Floyd has led many to reconsider the events of June 19 and how that has shaped the country 155 years later.

By 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, turning June 19 into a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. 

In recognition of Juneteenth, ET asked Laverne Cox, Ludacris, Nicole Beharie, Todrick Hall and others about what the day means to them as well as how the Black Lives Matter movement and continued conversations about racism affects how we all think and talk about the holiday in 2020 and beyond. Here’s what they had to say at the time: 

Laverne Cox
Executive Producer, Disclosure

“Juneteenth is about freedom. It is about emancipation. And I think that for a long time, for black people in this country, that was symbolic. Yes, we were freed, but then Jim Crow happened, and then mass incarceration happened. It has been a fraught battle, so it is always a tempered kind of celebration for me when I think about that. But when I think about the overwhelming support for Black Lives Matter that we did not have six years ago when Black Lives Matter began, I'm heartened and I am hopeful that we can turn the tide. But it has to translate into policies and practices that value black lives, that re-prioritize budget so that we are making sure that the most marginalized people in this country -- poor and working people, poor and working black folks, trans folks -- have their material conditions changed. That is what it is about. It is about the material conditions that people who are most marginalized changing. That must be the goal, must be.”    

Nicole Beharie
Actor, Miss Juneteenth

“I think in Texas, because it happened there, there’s perhaps a stronger tradition of it. It’s something that I had heard of, in a mom and pop restaurant or something like that. It wasn’t until college while I was doing a play about that time period that I had read about it, and really it’s not something that is celebrated on a national level. There is no real commemoration of emancipation, or the end of that particular terrible time in our history. So I wonder if this is a moment where that can start to be a part of the national narrative… Juneteenth is a holiday we should all be aware of.” [Read More]

Okieriete Onaodowan
Actor, Station 19

“When I think of the moment all slaves were finally  'freed' from slavery, I think of the most prosperous black city that ever was, Greenwood, Oklahoma, Black Wall Street. A city, in 1921, that was bombed and burned to the ground by white men. A city where innocent, unarmed black men, women, and children were murdered in the streets. As much as it hurts to relive the Tulsa Oklahoma Massacre of 1921, what I take away is that Greenwood became a green spot of envy in these hateful white mens eyes because it was flourishing, like a mu'f**ka. After June 19,1865, black people were freed but not free. Jim Crow saw to that, and yet twas also the reason why Black Wall Street  was able to grow, and flourish because black people had no choice but to invest in black businesses. Segregation laws  made it impossible for black people to spend their money anywhere else. They invested in their community 100 percent of the time. Greenwood had a hospital, banks, grocery stores, nightclubs, tailors, private airplanes; all black owned. That. Is. Freedom. A city left alone, for black people to grow, govern, maintain, and POLICE THEMSELVES? That sounds like freedom, now more than ever. When I think of Juneteenth this year, I think of Greenwood, Tulsa Oklahoma. The only moment in White American History, and American History where black people were truly free. Right now, just like in 1865, black people in this country are being offered a bullshit, empty, unrecognizable version of freedom. We, the people, look to LAWS to determine and uphold the rules of society and the laws then,  like now, do not tell of freedom for black people. Celebrating Juneteenth, the 'ending of slavery,' could be likened to celebrating the Minneapolis PD for only kneeling on one neck. I say, Juneteenth can no longer just be black people celebrating the knee removed from our necks, it needs to be a  proclamation, a demand for what is owed, just and for what is equal, a declaration from ALL AMERICANS. Because that knee NEVER should have been there in the first place.”

Todrick Hall
Singer, Quarantine Queen

“Juneteenth right now, to me, just means freedom in the legitimate sense. Before, when I used to celebrate Juneteenth and we would go to Black Park -- that’s what we called it in Plainview, Texas, where I was from -- we would go to Black Park and hang out all day. To me, it just meant a time of celebrating your heritage with people who looked like you, and celebrating where we came from and where we are going. But now, because Pride is such a big part of my life, I feel even more free during the month of June because I feel -- finally as an adult who started out not feeling free as a black man and not feeling free as a gay man -- now I am legitimately feeling more and more and more and more free every year. So many people are out there fighting for the rights of my brothers and sisters, whether that be part of the LGBTQ+ community or the African American community.  So, freedom is the word that I would say would fully encompass what Juneteenth means to me.” [Watch

Alex Newell
Actor, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

“You know, it' the day the slaves were freed and it's a wonderful day in my book. The day is quite literally about freedom and being free and opportunity and hope and optimism and celebration is the baseline of it all. And it's a time for us to come together and be proud of where we are. It's kind of like what I said with Pride, to be proud of where you are and the accomplishments that you've had -- and celebrating just being black, unabashedly black.”

Anthony ‘Treach’ Criss
Producer, Equal Standard

“It’s just having it so that we can have events in the future and everything [after the] protests. ‘Cause if we don't stop this cycle right now, it's not going to be fun to go out in public anywhere.”

Channing Godfrey Peoples
Director, Miss Juneteenth

“Juneteenth has always been part of my life. It’s a time for community to come together to remember our ancestors who suffered through slavery and finally got their freedom -- in Texas, two years after the fact. As a girl growing up in Texas, I marveled at the annual Miss Juneteenth winner gliding across the stage with hope on her face. Before I understood the significance of the pageant and its purpose of instilling pride and self-worth in the ladies who were crowned its winner,  I was fascinated by the pageantry: its contestants were young, hopeful African American women… Miss Juneteenth is a movie about dreams deferred. I am so honored to be able to make this film about a woman who is the legacy of those ancestors, desperately looking for a way to make a better future for her daughter. To release Miss Juneteenth on this special day means so much to me. Miss Juneteenth is a culmination of my life experiences, heritage and culture. I was inspired to make this film by the strength of my ancestors, the perseverance of my community and the continued fight for freedom.” [Read More]

Executive Producer, Equal Standard

“I think if black people want to create our own holidays, we should... But I think we need to focus on things that are really important as black people and let’s address them first. We’ll worry about holidays later. You know, that’s just my opinion. There’s things that we need to all bind together to address, and this problem we're dealing with right now, systemic racism, let's address that.” 

Founder, Kid Nation 

“I think a lot of people were not as educated on Juneteenth and now they’re starting to become that educated and what I mean by that is, of course, there was a certain amount of people that were very much loyal, very much educated on Juneteenth and celebrated Juneteenth but now there are people just coming into, you know, the awareness of it all and learning the backstory and understanding it. So I feel like this is going to be the biggest Juneteenth that we’ve ever seen in the United States of America and people are gonna celebrate it in many different ways. I’m very proud and very happy about that. But what’s most important is that everyone is just making sure that they continue to get their understanding of Juneteenth and the difference of Juneteenth with July 4th. Especially now. Increase your awareness.”  

Jenifer Lewis
Actor, Black-ish

“Juneteenth represents the pain and the joy of African Americans. It’s a day that we celebrate for us... A lot of us are still enslaved, by many things that have been directed to our communities… Until somebody says, ‘I'm sorry,’ there will be no healing and unfortunately our leadership right now is broken down.” [Watch]

Nicole Avant
Director, The Black Godfather

“I would say, at least in my household, you start in your own household and talk about it in your own household and teach your children about it. Make sure they really understand it so they can have a conversation outside of your house. I think everybody is so focused on having all these things and celebrations outside and that it takes away from the real meaning. And we should really celebrate in our own homes as well as however else you want and make sure it's celebrated in your own home and in your own way and really, really honored. It's time to really look back at everybody who suffered and scarified and hurt for so long for us to be having this conversation. That needs to be honored.”

Additional reporting by Denny Directo, John Boone, Meredith Kile, Nischelle Turner and Philiana Ng