Juneteenth celebration at Anacostia Museum, June 22, 1991, by Hugh Talman. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image no. 91-9094.

When did the Smithsonian Begin Celebrating Juneteenth?

African American communities have celebrated Juneteenth for more than 150 years. When did the Smithsonian begin hosting programs to commemorate the nation’s second independence day?

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston Bay, Texas, learned of their freedom. 

The holiday has been celebrated in African American communities for more than 150 years. But when did the Smithsonian begin hosting programs to commemorate the nation’s second independence day?

The highlights section about the Anacostia Museum in the annual report pictures a Juneteenth Banner

In the mid-1980s, the National Museum of American History’s Program in African American Culture, led by founding director and musician Bernice Johnson Reagon, produced public programs that coincided with the Juneteenth holiday. 

It was the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, though, with founding director John Kinard and educator Zora Martin-Felton at the helm, that hosted larger-scale, day-long celebrations. In 1987, Martin-Felton worked with intern Amy Grey, a student at Brown University, to research the origins of the Juneteenth holiday and investigate possible plans to host an event in the future. Two years later, on June 17, 1989, the Museum welcomed families for a Juneteenth program with games, demonstrations, and films. 

And the holiday events kept getting bigger. Although no festival was held in 1990, annual celebrations continued in Anacostia under the leadership of director Steven C. Newsome. In 1991, nearly 2,000 visitors gathered at the Museum for an emancipation day for the whole family. The theme that year was “Freedom Revisited” and District Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton made the opening remarks. Musical performances that year were diverse—from a West African dance troupe to a local go-go band. Other activities included hair braiding, kente weaving, wood carving, cartooning, wool spinning, quilting, games for children, military reenactments, and film screenings. The following year, 5,000 people attended the Museum’s holiday event. Learn more about details of Juneteenth programs in the 1990s from record descriptions from the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

 Rolls of film featuring a celebration of Juneteenth at the Anacostia Community Museum. Scenes includ

In 2022, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting a month-long Juneteenth celebration. Dive into the history of the Juneteenth holiday, share your stories online, and register for related events

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