D.C. celebrates Juneteenth with go-go music, breakdancing, and Black joy

A day after it became a federal holiday, the streets of the District were filled with people ready to reflect on the significance of June 19—and party

Black Lives Matter Plaza on Juneteenth. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

On Thursday, June 17, President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the first new federal holiday in almost 40 years. (Martin Luther King Jr. Day was made official by Ronald Reagan in 1983.) Because it fell on a Saturday this year, federal employees scrambled to observe the holiday on Friday—but by Saturday, people in Washington, D.C., were ready to party.    

On a brilliantly sunny and warm afternoon, members of the social and racial justice advocacy organization Long Live GoGo The Movement slowly maneuver their flatbed truck into Black Lives Matter Plaza. A little over a year ago, the stretch of 16th Street NW that terminates at Lafayette Park just outside of the White House was renamed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Since then, the plaza—and its bright yellow “Black Lives Matter” mural—has become a de facto gathering space for both protests and parties; or sometimes, like on June 19, for an event that combines both. 

Long Live GoGo’s distinctive beats (“go-go” was made the official music of D.C. in 2020) draw a diverse crowd, but the mood is cautiously celebratory at first. The Juneteenth designation is largely a symbolic gesture, yes, but one that was more than 150 years in the making. Thanks mainly to the efforts of activists, some people are only just now becoming aware of the day’s significance. Celebrated since 1866, Juneteenth, known alternately as Jubilee or Freedom Day, commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they were free—nearly 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation legally outlawed slavery. 

Today, 156 years later, Washingtonians draped in flags and t-shirts with slogans such as “Free-ish since 1865” and “Refuse to be broke” gather on the plaza to show off their colorful couture and breakdancing moves. After a few hours, the party moves through downtown, stopping at least once for an impromptu dance break in a tunnel underneath Scott Circle. As the truck comes to a stop at 14th and U streets, band members move to a stationary stage. The music and dancing continues well into the night; after a year of protests, politics, and a pandemic, I get the sense that residents of the District are reluctant to go back inside. This may have been the country’s first official Juneteenth celebration, but we won’t have to wait another 150 years for the next.

A Black man dances in front of a banner that says "Long Live GoGo"
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Long Live GoGo’s “Million Moe March” attracted hundreds of people dressed in their Saturday best, ready to dance to go-go, the official music of Washington, D.C.

The red, black, and green Pan-African flag flies next to an American flag
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The Pan-African flag flies over Black Lives Matter Plaza. With equal bands of red, black, and green, the flag was created in 1920 by members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. 

A man is draped in a red, white, and blue Juneteenth flag
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The Juneteenth flag was created in 1977 by the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, Ben Haith, and illustrator Lisa Jeanna Graf. The red, white, and blue flag features a white star representing Texas, the Lone Star State, as well as the freedom of enslaved people everywhere.

A Black woman with a "wild and wonderful" tattoo on her forearm dances in the street
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A woman with a “Wild and Wonderful” tattoo dances at the intersection of 14th and U streets.

A Black man in a shirt emblazoned with the words "refuse to be broke" claps his hands and a Black woman in a bright orange dress clutches a fan
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Juneteenth fell on a brilliantly sunny Saturday this year; the mood was celebratory and the clothes were colorful. 

Two people dance and smile
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

T-shirts representing all aspects of Black history were on display. 

a Black boy shows off his dance moves on a painted yellow street
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A boy shows off his dance moves on a section of the bright yellow “Black Lives Matter” mural painted on 16th Street NW. 

a young Black girl holds a street sign that says "Black Lives Matter Plaza NW"
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

On June 5, 2020, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser officially designated the stretch of 16th Street NW that ends at Lafayette Park as “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” 

A colorful poster that says "DC Statehood NOW" hangs on a truck that hosts a band
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A poster by Baltimore artist NOMU NOMU hangs on the side of the Long Live GoGo truck, advocating for D.C. statehood.

colorful sneakers standing on a part of the street painted yellow
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Colorful sneakers at Black Lives Matter Plaza.

A newly-married couple receives a warm reception from the crowd assembled at Black Lives Matter Plaza
Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A newly-married couple receives a warm reception from the crowd assembled at Black Lives Matter Plaza.