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.
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 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.
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 woman with a “Wild and Wonderful” tattoo dances at the intersection of 14th and U streets.
Juneteenth fell on a brilliantly sunny Saturday this year; the mood was celebratory and the clothes were colorful.
T-shirts representing all aspects of Black history were on display.
A boy shows off his dance moves on a section of the bright yellow “Black Lives Matter” mural painted on 16th Street NW.
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 poster by Baltimore artist NOMU NOMU hangs on the side of the Long Live GoGo truck, advocating for D.C. statehood.
Colorful sneakers at Black Lives Matter Plaza.
A newly-married couple receives a warm reception from the crowd assembled at Black Lives Matter Plaza.