Christina Brooks’ Juneteenth celebration will be filled with family, food and the color red. She’s prepared a menu for the occasion, including classics like barbecue ribs, potato salad, baked beans and a crimson fruit salad.
This year, there’s a special treat: homemade hibiscus tea.
“You can’t be Texan and not like iced tea,” she said.
Brooks is relying on an old recipe to guide her through the process, and she’s hopeful the bright red beverage will add another representation of Juneteenth to her dinner table. For Brooks, Juneteenth is the story of a group of people, who had every right to be angry, choosing joy and celebration instead.
“When you think about what’s happening in the world today, there’s some kind of tragic news story about violence and disagreement,” Brooks said. “Geez, what lessons can we learn from Black Texans who chose to use that moment to reveal the goodness of human nature?”
This isn’t Brooks’ first time celebrating Juneteenth, but as a city employee, it is the first time she’s been given a day off to celebrate the holiday. The festivities this year represent a time of celebration and rest for Black city employees who have long advocated for Juneteenth to be recognized as a city holiday, said Brooks, the director of Fort Worth’s Diversity and Inclusion Department.
“For a long time, they were the ones leading the charge,” she said. “Now, they have people helping them carry it forward when they get tired.”
Juneteenth has its roots in Texas, but the holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery became a Fort Worth city holiday only last year, two months after President Joe Biden made it a federal holiday in June. It might not have made it onto a city agenda at all if it weren’t for District 8 council member Chris Nettles, whose constituents include activist Opal Lee herself. In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee garnered national attention when she went on a 1,360-mile walking journey from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C, to advocate for Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
“I think when we get elected, we get elected for a purpose or we have an agenda,” he said. “Juneteenth wasn’t No. 1 on my agenda, but when I represent a community, (when something) means a lot to them then it becomes my agenda.”
As the city prepares to honor Juneteenth as a city holiday for the first time, festivities are ramping up, both in the community and City Hall. The city hosted a series of events Thursday, including a performance from an all-employee choir. On Saturday, hundreds will join Fort Worth native Opal Lee in her annual “Walk for Freedom.”
Where can you go to celebrate Juneteenth?
Along with celebrations, city employees will be given June 20 off in honor of Juneteenth. For administrative assistant and chair of the city diversity and inclusion committee, Alexandra Thurston, the day off is long overdue.
“The holiday is acknowledging an unpaid workforce,” Thurston said. “It’s absolutely justice that employees are being given an opportunity to rest.”
Thurston was initially skeptical of celebrating Juneteenth because it represented delayed emancipation, but she has since come around to the holiday.
“It’s not just the celebration of the end of slavery, but it’s also the only true acknowledgement of slavery,” Thurston said. “That is infinitely important.”
Why it took so long
Long before Nettles was elected and pushed for Juneteenth to be recognized as a city holiday, a committee of city employees were working to recognize the holiday behind the scenes. Made up of Black staffers, Brooks said, the committee shouldered the responsibility of recognition before it was popular.
“The committee members have all experienced something that says, ‘Let me lend my voice to make sure that the city as an organization is better,’ ” Brooks said.
The Juneteenth committee existed even before the diversity and inclusion committee, she said, and now the two work in tandem to ensure the city celebrates the holiday with the respect it deserves.
“There’s this complete tapestry of activity and intention, wanting to make sure that we honor Opal Lee and the legacy of Juneteenth in Texas,” Brooks said.
The two committees worked together to organize the city’s Juneteenth festivities. The Juneteenth committee’s original purpose was to ensure that the city recognizes the holiday and gives employees space to celebrate even if they didn’t receive the day off.
Now, the committee will enjoy celebrating Juneteenth as an official city and federal holiday alongside their planned festivities.
“There’s a sense that the doors are open,” Brooks said. “You see an eclectic group of individuals from all over the place saying, ‘We want to honor Juneteenth, too.’ ”
Despite internal Juneteenth celebrations by city staff, the holiday was not legitimized by City Council until it had already received national attention because council members didn’t prioritize it, Nettles said.
“This shows how the City Council really has the opportunity to determine a path forward for the city of Fort Worth,” Nettles said. “It’s so important that you elect someone that you feel that shares your values or your principles.”
Thurston acknowledged change can take a long time when it comes to city government bureaucracy, and she wasn’t sure initially if the city would recognize the holiday after the federal declaration.
“There’s always that big debate about, ‘Oh, it’s gonna cost the taxpayers money,’” she said. “And that’s valid, that’s absolutely valid. However, I am a taxpayer, too.”
Fostering community, education
For some Black staffers, the holiday is an opportunity to catch up on their own passion projects. Brenda Murphy, an outdoor events coordinator with the city, is planning to use the day to finish a book she’s writing. Murphy has already published several books prior, and she said this one will focus on necessary boundaries and how to maintain them in your life.
“I’m so excited that this day is recognized, for me,” she said. “I can’t say I went through all of that, but I’m very thankful and mindful, and it matters a lot. A lot of people will benefit from it.”
Brooks hopes city staff will use the day to give back to their community and educate themselves about the history of Juneteenth. Including the personal histories of the first Black Texans to celebrate Juneteenth who went on to become entrepreneurs and business owners.
The rights finally afforded to Black Texans on Juneteenth are an encapsulation of American values, Brooks said. The lessons learned from the past are still relevant today, she added.
It’s vital to carry the lessons of Juneteenth and Opal Lee forward, Nettles said. There is still work to be done in pursuit of racial equity in Fort Worth and around the country.
Establishing Juneteenth as a city holiday is one small way to celebrate Black residents in Fort Worth, but the city must continue to take steps forward, Nettles said. He hopes to speak with Lee and learn more about her hopes and dreams for Fort Worth, and then take action on those desires.
Lee’s story reflects that of the emancipated Texans, Brooks said. In the face of violence violence, you can choose love and joy. That’s the message Brooks said she learns from Lee.
“She’s showing us what she’s been able to do and persevere with her resilient spirit, and so for me, that’s the takeaway,” Brooks said tearfully. “That should be the lesson for all of us at this moment.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.