On June 1, 1863, when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official, an executive order was written to destabilize the Confederacy amidst the Civil War and free enslaved people. Two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas announcing the end of the war and the end of slavery. This day became known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. It is a day to remember the trafficking of enslaved humans that separated families across state boundaries and killed family members. This day honors those who were lost and celebrates the vivacity and success of Black Americans from Juneteenth to the present.
It is also a time of empowerment and deepening our understanding of how America’s history of slavery–and the persistence of systemic racism–impacts the mental health of Black Americans.
Growing up in Louisiana, my mother experienced Juneteenth parades led by churches and high schools where marching bands and flag teams walked down the streets. Sometimes the horses used for Mardi Gras parades would participate in the celebration.
Most common were celebrations in the major parks in New Orleans, such as the Audubon Park, where families would gather and barbecue. Every part of the park would be covered with people and music could be heard.
These celebrations are important because they acknowledge the triumphs of the past and provide the potential to develop an even stronger feeling of community among Black Americans. By gathering and celebrating this history, communities can return to the conversation of racial trauma and its effects on Black Americans.
A study by Mental Health America (MHA) found that major depressive episodes increased in African American teenagers and adults between 2015 and 2018: From 9% to 10.3% in youth ages 12-17; 6.1% to 9.4% in young adults 18-25; and 5.7% to 6.3% in the 26-49 age range. In addition, both mental health research and treatment provision have been dominated by white study participants and treatment specialists. This means that Black Americans are underrepresented in the studies and professional arenas most critical in identifying and addressing core mental health needs. This, coupled with overall challenges accessing mental health services, often leaves Black communities without much-needed support.
In addition, enslavement in the U.S. had long-lasting effects on Black communities. Coined by Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome describes the multigenerational trauma spanning the atrocities of slavery to mass incarceration, and can include symptoms like feeling numb, hopeless, self-destructive, and depressed.
While Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the U.S., it also represents the resilience of the Black American community–a community that is healing from years of racial trauma. Through self-acceptance, self-celebration, and having these conversations, this community can continue to heal.
To learn more about Juneteenth, systemic racism, and ways to support mental health, check out the links below.
Mental Health Resources for the Black Community