top of page



Courtesy American Southern Belle

The truth about Juneteenth

America has always been sleazy. The government didn't inform Texas slaves they were free in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. They kept those poor Texas slaves in bondage two-and-a-half more years until 1865, following the end of the Civil Warnot informing them of their freedom until Union army General Gordon Granger and his troops traveled to Galveston, Texas to announce General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865. The date would go on to be known and celebrated as Juneteenth. "The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." - Jarrette Fellows, Jr., editor


Commemorate Juneteenth With Free Virtual Programs From the Smithsonian




Associate Editor, History

On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and freed the roughly 250,000 enslaved people living in the Southern state.


Taking place a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the day—known as Juneteenth—marked the end of slavery in the Confederate states.

This Saturday, June 18, the  Smithsonian's National Museum of African American His- tory and Culture (NMAAHC) will commem- orate the nation’s "second independence day" with a slate of online programming.

The events are part of a tradition of festi- vals commemorating emancipation, African American contributions to American life,

and freedom itself. The museum’s virtual programming and new educational resour- ces can be found on its Juneteenth webpage.


Photo of 10 people and a dog at a picnic table, 1919–1925 Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / Douglas Keister / Creative Commons

Celebrated by African Americans for generations through food and fellowship, Juneteenth embodies Black resilience, independence, and community. It is a day African Americans set aside to commemorate the end of slavery and the promise of freedom—expressed through music, food, and ceremony.

"We have celebrated Juneteenth in my family for years,” says NMAAHC’s director, Kevin Young. "But last year—in the midst of the murder of George Floyd and delayed justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others whose names have become sadly familiar—this commemora- tion of liberty and justice took on more urgency."


The museum’s virtual Juneteenth commemoration will include activities exploring the meaning of freedom and engaging with African American cultural traditions. Featured Juneteenth public programs include a discussion with food writer Adrian Miller on his book Black Smoke, a genealogy presentation by an expert from the museum’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, a selection of stories told by Jan Blake that reflect the wisdom and strength of America’s post-slavery communities, a panel discussion on the origins and significance of Juneteenth, and a musical performance and conversation with singer Amythyst Kiah.

"The goal of the museum’s programming this year is to help our visitors reflect on the meaning of Juneteenth and its traditions of music, food and freedom,” says Young.


"We’re offering new ways for the public to join us in celebrating the holiday and the richness of African American culture, a culture born out of imagination, hard-won joy and resilience."

In addition to hosting virtual events, NMAAHC has compiled a range of online resources related to Juneteenth, from information on the holiday’s origins to oral histories to educational activities.


Offerings include a video on intersection- ality in freedom celebrations throughout the Black diaspora; a blog post series on the history, importance and observance of Juneteenth; and a video cooking demonstration using recipes from the museum’s Sweet Home Café Cookbook.

Juneteenth Virtual Programming Schedule Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (10 a.m. to 11 a.m. EST)

Adrian Miller, food writer, James Beard Award winner, attorney and certified barbecue judge, joins Young, a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, in a conversation about his book Black Smoke. The two will discuss the perseverance, innovation and entrepreneurship of African American people whose faces and stories have been marginalized in the history of American cuisine.


Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. Miller chronicles how Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restauranteurs helped develop this cornerstone of American foodways and how they are coming into their own today.

Genealogy & Records of Intrigue (12 p.m. to 1 p.m. EST). Staff at the Robert Frederick Smith center will use reverse genealogy to explore the family history of an enslaved spinner and weaver from the time of the American Revolution to the turn of the century.


This event will follow the historical footpath of a woman who lost children during slavery and the Civil War but survived to secure an account with the Freedman’s Bank. It will demonstrate how one critical record links to a host of documents, thereby leading to an intriguing emancipation story.

Porch Stories: Tales of Slavery and Beyond (3 p.m. to 4 p.m. EST). Daniel Black, novelist and professor of African American studies at Clark Atlanta University, will interview internationally recognized storyteller Jan Blake about how she weaves the African American experience into a body of work primarily focused on the Black diaspora. Blake will share two stories—an Ethiopian tale titled "Fire on the Mountain" and her interpre- tation of a short story by Charles Chesnutt titled "Mary and Moses." These tales, which speak to a multi- generational audience, share insights into the wisdom and strength of America’s post-slavery communities.

Juneteenth: Connecting the Historic to the Now (5 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST). Young will moderate a panel discussion exploring the origins of Juneteenth and the historical and current political significance of the holiday. Panelists include Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian at Harvard University and author of On JuneteenthJelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School; and Imani Perry, an African American Studies expert at Princeton University.

Community Soundstage: A Conversation With Amythyst Kiah (7 p.m. to 8 p.m. EST). Singer and songwriter Amythyst Kiah, whose latest album fuses rock and her old-time country roots, will perform three acoustic numbers, including her breakout hit "Black Myself." In an interview with Dwandalyn Reece, NMAAHC’s asso- ciate director of curatorial affairs, Kiah will also discuss her highly anticipated album, Wary + Strange, and her belief that music helps listeners recognize the intersection of historic and contemporary social justice challenges.

New Juneteenth Digital Resources Freedom Celebrations Across the Black Diaspora w/ Curator Angela Tate

In this video, Angela Tate, curator of women’s history at NMAAHC, speaks about the importance of Juneteenth celebrations among various African diasporic communities. Tate discusses how Juneteenth celebrates freedom within the Black community and its differences across the Black diaspora, how the holiday has changed over the past decades, and its recent reemergence during modern movements such as Black Lives Matter and other post-civil rights efforts.

Celebration Through Cooking: Sweet Home Café’s Juneteenth Menu. In this video, Andre Thompson, a web content specialist at NMAAHC, is joined by his family for an at-home cooking demonstration. Thompson will show viewers how to make the perfect brisket with a twist, step by step. This dish, which can be included in any Juneteenth celebration menu, is based on a recipe from the museum’s Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking.


Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking. A celebration of African American cooking with 109 recipes from  National Museum of African American History and Culture's Sweet Home Café.

HBCUs and the Newly Freed: Education After the Emancipation. While Juneteenth is often associated with celebrations of physical emancipations from slavery, it also signaled another type of liberation. Despite being barred from traditional institutions due to segregation laws, the newly freed pursued higher education through the more than 90 schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) founded between 1861 and 1900.

Juneteenth Blog Series: A Curatorial Discussion. In this three-part blog series, museum experts share the cultural, modern and historical perspectives of Juneteenth from its first observance in 1865 to the present day. Tate; Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery; and Kelly Navies, oral historian, will answer questions about the origins and importance of Juneteenth.

Other Smithsonian offerings related to Juneteenth include a Smithsonian Channel series of video essays featuring writers, artists and activists reflecting on the holiday and Civic Season, a three-week initiative led by institutions including the National Museum of American History. Spanning June 14 to July 4, Civic Season asks Americans to meditate on the nation’s complex past and outline their visions for a more equitable future.

Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history. Use by Creative Commons.

Civil Rights-era Cold Cases 

casket till.jpg

"I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son. But on the other hand, I felt the alternative was even worse. After all, we had avert- ed our eyes for far too long, turn- ing away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation.
Let the world see what I’ve seen," said Mamie Till Bradley. Courtesy MTB



Under review by new board; but the clock is ticking against them

For decades, investigators, journalists and victims’ families have long sought answers surrounding bombings and shootings committed during the struggle for civil rights whose perpetrators were never caught or who skated through the justice system.

They’ve waited on record requests filed through the Freedom of Information Act. They’ve tried to piece together what happened by poring over the all-caps, teletype dispatches that pinged between FBI offices that, when initially released, were run through with blocks of redactions.

In 2019, President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan piece of legislation originally drafted by a group of high schoolers that treats records of these cold cases that happened between 1940 to 1979 like the records relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which were compiled at the National Archives and made available to the public.

In mid-February, the Senate confirmed four individuals to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board: a former journalist who won the Pulitzer-prize in history, a law professor who was the first Black female judge in Massachusetts, an instruction archivist and a history professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

Their task? To determine just what records fall under the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 and whether a document’s release should be delayed.

But before work begins in earnest, the members must be sworn in and there’s paperwork to do, staff to hire. 

“That will take some time,” said William Bosanko, chief operating officer for the National Archives and Records Administration.

But time is not on the board’s side.

As the administration in Washington changed hands, the board remained unfilled. The clock is ticking, as the law says the review board’s work will end four years after the law first passed, although the board could vote to extend that time for a year further.

“Absent congressional intervention and a change in the law, the board doesn’t really have a fighting chance. They’re going to need more time in order to deal with these very important and very weighty issues around these cold cases,” Bosanko said. 

Those weighty issues include the act’s scope. A couple years ago, the federal government compiled and reviewed 161 unsolved homicides carried out during the struggle for civil rights. The cases included the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Burning case involving the deaths of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

But Bosanko said the Cold Case Records Collection Act was written to encompass more than those cases and could include, for instance, violations to the Fair Housing Act.

There’s also the sheer volume of records, where Department of Justice documents stored at the National Archives that could fall under the act is not measured in the thousands of pages, but in thousands of cubic feet.

Bosanko said the National Archives has already identified some of the low hanging fruit, some of the most notable Civil Rights-era cold cases, cases that the administration suspects may be of interest to the board and whose records they could quickly get in front of the group.

The archives, however, is stymied when it comes to crafting and issuing guidance to other federal agencies because it does not yet know what the board will determine is the scope of the act.

In the meantime, some departments have been at work. For instance, in a footnote of a report, the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said between July 2019 to September 2020 it spent nearly 1,800 hours working on issues surrounding cold cases, including compliance with the records collection act.

In June 2021, the White House announced nominations to the five-member board. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a confirmation hearing for four nominees in mid-January.

Introducing the nominees during the remote hearing conducted over teleconferencing software, former Sen. Doug Jones said he couldn’t think of a better group for the committee to consider. The former prosecutor who helped try two of the Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birming- ham, Ala., said the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Act was one of his signature pieces of legislation.

“There have been a handful of people over the last 20 or 30 years … that have taken a real interest in these cold civil rights cases,” Jones said in a later interview, and two of those individuals were former journalist Hank Klibanoff and law professor Margaret Burnham.

Klibanoff, a professor at Emory University, is director of Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at the univer- sity and Burnham, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law founded the school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

“They were just naturals to me because of their interest. And they see this in a bigger picture,” Jones added, saying the two educators see the importance a complete record for truth and reconciliation for the communities affected by the old violence.

During the hearing, Burnham said the nomination to the board was the highlight of her career working for civil rights. In 1977, Burnham became the first Black woman to sit on the bench in Massachusetts, on Boston’s municipal court, “Serving ordinary working people in their disputes that arise in their lives,” she said.  

After a career as a civil rights attorney and a law professor, Burnham said in an interview the nomination to the review board brought her full circle back to public service.

Burnham began looking into Civil Rights-era cold cases after President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2007, legislation that directed the federal government to take another look at many of the cold cases from that time.

She said she realized the act wouldn’t reach every case of racial violence that ended up with a death. Working with students, she began investigating, relying on legal expertise to navigate the FOIA system to obtain docu- ments from the government.

Burnham said she wanted to learn how the law failed, and how federal prosecutors at the time managed pro- fessional ethics.

“I was interested in what federal prosecutors in these local areas did,” Burnham said. “They had to thread a needle between satisfying the local power structures with whom they were quite connected and upon whom they were sometimes dependent, while at the same time, meeting the new interests that were emanating from Washington to these cases.”

Klibanoff said in his prepared statement to the committee that the board’s task was not to solve crimes, but to make government records more readily available.

“I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own heart the extraordinary good that can come when families of those who were killed sit down with a couple of hundred pages of government records and unlock decades of mysteries, myths and misunderstandings,” Klibanoff wrote in his written testimony to the committee.

Gabrielle Dudley, an instruction archivist at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library told the committee she understood how there was a balance between the release of records while protecting individuals’ privacy.

When Dudley was in high school, growing up in the Birmingham area, some of the klansmen responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing faced prosecution. As an intern at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, she collected oral histories from individuals, some of whom would mention the people they knew who were murdered, she said in an interview.

“You would call and they would just, it was almost like they were just ready to tell these stories,” Dudley said.

As the board is preparing to begin its work, lawmakers are trying to give it more time. In February, Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, introduced a bill that would buy the board three more years, extending the time it meets from 2024 to 2027.

At the end of March, the Civil Rights Cold Case Investigations Support Act of 2022 passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee. A spokesman for Cruz said in a statement that the senator was pleased to work on this bill and he hoped the extension would allow victims and their families to find justice.

Stuart Wexler, the history teacher at Hightown High School in New Jersey whose students originally drafted the bill that became the cold case records act, said the most pressing issue surrounding the act and the release of the cold case records is the extension being considered by Congress.

“That’s obviously the number one priority because the board is not going to have time to do its work,” Wexler said.

As a high-schooler, Wexler was fascinated by the JFK assassination and he followed the early meetings of the board formed to review those assassination records in the 90s. That review board, in its hunt for records, accepted letters from the public offering tips and called witnesses, Wexler said.

For the board reviewing the JFK assassination records, “a big issue for them was trying to find autopsy materials and to authenticate what autopsy materials they had,” Wexler said. “So they call a bunch of people

like the photographer involved with the autopsy, the autopsy doctors.”

According to the legislation, The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board has the ability to issue sub- poenas for records and its members receive security clearances.

Meanwhile, National Archives COO Bosanko said he hopes that the records once released will allow people more accessibility to the records. No longer will people have to plan a trip to the National Archives’ facility at say, College Park, Maryland.

Once the project is complete, with records of old cold cases posted online, he hopes that, for instance, a rural schoolteacher could drive home lessons surrounding the struggle for civil rights by examining events that happened in that locale.

“For me, being the most open and transparent we can as a nation with our history,” Bosanko said, “and then making it discoverable and usable, that’s what this act is about.”

Courthouse News.


ears after legislation creating it was signed into law, the Senate has finally confirmed members to a board whose task is to help compile and release records surrounding the racially motivated crimes that have lain unsolved since the Civil Rights era.

bottom of page