On Monday, Chicago city officials and the Black Remembrance Project raised a Juneteenth flag outside the Daley Plaza in the city’s first flag-raising ceremony celebrating the now official state holiday. I’d never seen the official Juneteenth flag before. The red, white and blue theme with a star in the middle reminded me of the U.S. stars and bars. When I sent a picture of the Juneteenth flag to my partner to see what she thought, she replied with, “it’s giving me Confederate flag.”

For a flag that commemorates the anniversary of the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to free enslaved people two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I didn’t expect to see a Juneteenth flag that evokes the ensign of the institutions that committed the most egregious atrocities of chattel slavery.

There is a decades-long history of Black folk fighting to turn Juneteenth into a national holiday, which culminated in a victory on June 17, 2021 as President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. However, I can’t imagine that the organizers keeping the movement alive intended for their flag to come off as one paying homage to the country that fabricated our struggle to begin with. So, I asked them how the flag came to be, and how it’s symbolism fits into their understanding of Juneteenth. 

“Our mission statement says to bring all Americans together to celebrate our common bond of freedom,” said Steven B. Williams. He’s the president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF). We spoke on June 16, just a few days before the Juneteenth holiday.

“We don’t say white Americans. We don’t say Black Americans. We say all Americans. And that’s the healing power of Juneteenth,” he added.

Word? Up until my convo with Williams, I thought the date — June 19 — that we’re celebrating for Juneteenth specifically marked the freedom of enslaved Black people. But alas, Williams enlightened me. 

“Yeah, the date is specific to the enslavement of African Americans but you cannot be enslaved unless someone enslaves you, right? And is that not a job for them?” he said.

There was radio silence over the phone because I couldn’t figure out whether he wanted me to answer the question, or if it was rhetorical and the pause was for dramatic effect. After a few seconds, I get the hint and finally break the silence with my best Druski impersonation: What do you mean by that?

Williams explained more. “They’re stuck with the task of putting their knees on our necks,” he said, with “they” referring to white slave owners. “It’s a job. So Juneteenth not only frees us from the enslavement of slavery, it frees them from slavery. It’s freedom for white people from having to be oppressors.”

Williams, again, is the president of the country’s foremost Juneteenth observance organization. NJOF has been on the frontline of the fight to make Juneteenth a federal holiday since the mid 1990s, when it was founded by Rev. Dr. Ronald V. “Doc” Myers. 

The current Juneteenth flag was designed in 1997 by former New York City marketing professional Ben Haith while working with Myers in Boston, Mass. Haith is a Black man who also founded a separate but similar Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. Other than Haith’s name and the story of the Juneteenth flag’s creation, there isn’t much information online about him. This is intentional, according to Williams, who said Haith “doesn’t go for all of that.” 

Reconditeness aside, the symbols and colors Haith used in the Juneteenth flag have meanings distinct from those in the American flag. The bursting star at the center represents Juneteenth: “the bursting star of freedom,” as Williams called it. The bursting star is leading into a new horizon, which is represented by the blue sky. And the red ground represents the American ground soaked in the blood of Black Americans. In 2007, the Juneteenth date — June 19, 1865 — was added along the side in arial font. 

Despite the assigned meaning of the symbols, which the NJOF website notes as being specifically created with “American red, white, and blue,” it is hard to look at the Juneteenth flag and see anything other than a lite American flag. Having a Juneteenth flag in the same colors as the American red, white, and blue with a star in the middle is similar to having a Holocaust memorial day flag in red, white and black with a swastika in the center like the Nazi flag. 

By the way, I researched whether there has ever been a Holocaust memorial flag, and the only thing I could find was a flag blog that displays a design created by the late flag scholar Michael Faul. The blog specifically states that when the idea of an official Holocaust flag— with Faul’s rendition as the example—  was presented to some Jewish people, nobody was feeling the idea at all, which raises my next query: what is the use of having a Juneteenth flag?

LaCreshia Birts standing outside her home in June 2020. She is the initiator of the Black Remembrance Project. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

For LaCreshia Birts, the initiator of the Black Remembrance Project and a Chicago native who led the effort to make Juneteenth an official holiday in Illinois, the Juneteenth flag is helpful for the visibility of the movement for Juneteenth observance and for solidarity with the Juneteenth organizers that precede her.

“When you see that flag, you know it’s a Juneteenth flag, and you know that’s what people are celebrating,” Birts said. “And the organizers who have been holding this holiday down and keeping it alive all these years, they embrace the flag, so it’s also out of respect for their work.”

Historian Samuel Collins III was born in Galveston, Texas, where Juneteenth— also known as Jubilee Day — celebrations originated. Collins admitted that he never really considered having a flag for Juneteenth before the one we have now was introduced. 

“I didn’t think about having an individual flag because the fight to me had always been about being accepted into the American system as American citizens,” he said. “I’m glad to see people waving them with a sense of pride about the holiday. I just hope people back it up with action.”

When you think about comparable atrocities with well-noted end dates, you’d be hard-pressed to find a flag that commemorates the day. What you may find, however, are flags that honor the people who experienced the atrocities. 

For example, there is no flag specifically celebrating the end of the Armenian genocide in 1923, but the Armenian national flag includes a symbolic reference to the genocide. There is no flag dedicated to the end of the Rwandan genocide, but there is a new Rwandan flag — which bares no resemblance to the old Rwandan flag that was associated with the 1994 genocide. Maybe there is still some room for American descendants of slavery to introduce a new flag design symbolic of the pride, unity, and triumph of Black Americans rather than commemorating the end of a horrendous transgression.

Chicago organizer William Calloway holding the Pan-African flag during Juneteenth 2020 celebrations. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

For the many of us who hadn’t been introduced to the Juneteenth flag until recently, the Pan-African flag — created in 1920 by Marcus Garvey — has long been synonymous with celebrations of Blackness including Juneteenth. But the Pan-African flag falls short of qualifying as a uniquely Black American symbol because it represents all people of the African diaspora, whereas the Juneteenth flag specifically represents the American descendants of slavery. 

But after interviewing Williams and Collins, two of the country’s most dedicated Juneteenthers, I don’t think the Juneteenth flag is the answer either. Both of them specified that Juneteenth isn’t a Black American holiday, but an American holiday, and that the flag isn’t a Black American flag, but an American flag. They said Juneteenth is for all Americans. 

“People want to go with the red, black, and green flag which relates to Africa, and I have no problem with identifying with my African roots,” Collins said about the Pan-African flag. “But you know, I was born right here in Galveston. So, we can’t argue for equal rights and then want to identify outside of the United States.” 

Although Birts has a relationship with NJOF, and fervently expressed her appreciation for the elders who’ve long led the movement, her perspective on Juneteenth is totally different. 

“Everyone can celebrate it, but everyone does not have an equal stake. Everyone hasn’t been holding a torch as much as the people who are directly impacted by what this holiday represents,” she said.

During Juneteenth 2020 celebrations in Chicago, Black folks flew a variety of flag styles in resistance to white supremacy and in unity with Black empowerment. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

“This holiday is about acknowledging the struggles that we endured being kidnapped and enslaved in this country as well as celebrating our cultural traditions and triumphs over the years,” she added.

The recent spike in excitement around Juneteenth, I think, identifies more closely with Birts’ understanding of the holiday. It was in the midst of last year’s nationwide summer uprisings for Black lives that interest and participation in the holiday grew tremendously. 

So, while we celebrate the symbolic victory of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday, it’s important to consider what that victory means in the larger fight for Black liberation, especially when it comes alongside a growing cry to remove education on Critical Race Theory from schools. Kids having the day off from school in observance of Juneteenth is nice, but ensuring that they understand the way that race and racism is embedded into the fabric of every American institution would be nicer. Chicago raising a flag outside the Daley Center is a kind gesture, but answering Black Chicago organizer’s demands to defund the police and redirect that money into restorative justice and education would be worlds kinder.

Until the legislators who so enthusiastically signed the Juneteenth act into law find that same enthusiasm and unanimous support for Black folk demanding real institutional change, symbolic victories like Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday will be just that: symbolic.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.