Co-authored by Shoreé Ingram, Director of Equity and Inclusion, Shereese Turner, Chief Program Officer, and Kaitlyn Dormer, Communications Manager
Like many predominantly white institutions, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity recognized Juneteenth as an organizational holiday for the very first time in 2020. At the time, it seemed like an obvious choice. Our community was the epicenter of the racial justice uprising that was rippling around the world. This was one simple way we could recognize and celebrate Black lives.
But before 2020, many Habitat leaders and staff didn’t know much about Juneteenth at all. In a blog from this time last year, Shereese recalls the deafening silence from her white colleagues when she mentioned celebrating Juneteenth.It happened two years in a row. It seemed no one was willing to ask the questions—what is Juneteenth? Or how do you celebrate Juneteenth?
This year, as we again recognize Juneteenth as an organizational holiday, we wanted to explore answers to those questions and more. So we connected with someone who knows a whole lot about why and how we celebrate Juneteenth—Lee Jordan.
Lee Jordan has been co-organizing the Twin Cities Juneteenth celebration for the last 30 years and is the Midwest and State Director for National Juneteenth. Over the years, the Twin Cities event has grown to be one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations anywhere in the country. Lee generously agreed to share his time with us in a Zoom interview earlier this week.
Lee shared how much it means to his life’s work to see the Juneteenth Bill come to fruition. The bill, which was signed by President Biden on Thursday, makes Juneteenth a federal holiday—156 years after the first celebration of freedom in Galveston, Texas.
Read on for excerpts and video clips from our conversation with Lee Jordan.
“Juneteenth is my home”
Lee Jordan: I have been involved with Juneteenth [for many years]. I started out just going, then from there I became a vendor, and after that, I started working with the committee… You know how sometimes you just feel like you’re at home? Juneteenth is my home.
I also do casting. I do modeling work. I keep myself busy. The main thing for me is that everything that I do brings me back into a Black space. It’s important for me to bring everything I know and I understand and that I’ve been taught and shown, and share it. If we don’t share the pieces of the puzzle that we have, then we’ll never get the whole puzzle together.
“If you don’t understand the history, you’re doomed to repeat it”
Lee: My first documentary I wanted to do was on the 150-year commemoration of Juneteenth. And the subtitle was going to be ‘How can something be around for 150 years and still be a secret?’
Because when you say Juneteenth to a lot of people, they really don’t understand what that means. Because Juneteenth is…how do you define it? Even as African American people, people here in America, we are still defining who we are. Because the information is slowly but surely coming out. . . .
Even when we talk about history unfolding. I learned about the Tulsa “riots” back about 15 years ago. Now they’re calling it exactly what it was—the Tulsa massacre. Because they went through and destroyed a black community that was thriving. Initially, they tried to soften the story. But you can’t soften the truth. You need to tell the truth.
If you don’t understand the history, you’re doomed to repeat it. … and that’s why Juneteenth is so important. It is the end of slavery here in America and what that means, and what that means to us and what it means to America. Juneteenth is an important part of that story.
“I really push the historical standpoint of Juneteenth”
Lee: One of the things I do for Juneteenth is I really push the historical standpoint of Juneteenth. I bring reenactments in. I was pleased and blessed to meet a gentleman who plays General Granger for us. He’s played General [Gordon] Granger for us for at least five or six years. It’s amazing when he gets up there and reads General Order No. 3 in front of this crowd. You realize that some people have never heard General Order No. 3 and know what it says. I watch their faces and…I get a little giddy. Because I see that knowledge is being imparted.
When I first heard it, one of the things that struck me was that they asked the slaves to remain on the plantation where they were, to seek employment from their former masters. And I’m thinking to myself ‘do you hear what you’re saying?’ I mean, ‘No! We’re getting out of here. We got freedom.’
To me, it really is this eye-opening experience every year to connect to the bigger story. And to bring that story to other people, and definitely to bring it to the youth of our community.
General Order No. 3 reads:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
“You’re in a true Black space”
Lee: When you come to Juneteenth… you’re in a true Black space. It’s not that we don’t want anyone else there, but it’s just truly one of those true Black spaces. You see African art, you see Black books, you see Black people walking around saying ‘Happy Juneteenth!”
It’s a huge, humongous family reunion that goes on every year.
“All things Juneteenth”
Lee: I’m on a call every Saturday about National Juneteenth. One of the things we say is ‘All things Juneteenth.’ When I first heard that, I thought this is so corny. But little by little, I start to understand that every day I step out my door, when I talk about history, when I talk about the contributions of African Americans here in America, then once again it’s ‘all things Juneteenth.’
When I talk about freedom—because Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom and freedom has no color. Once again, ‘all things Juneteenth.’ It’s a big portion of who I am, what I do. I eat, sleep, and drink Juneteenth.
“None are free until we all are free”
Shoreé: Could you talk more about the quote you mentioned, ‘none are free until we all are free?’
Lee: It starts with defining what freedom means for yourself. Once you define it for yourself, that’s the conversation you could have with other people. We’re all in this journey together, trying to figure out who we are and where we fit it. Once you’re free, once you’ve had your mind enlightened and your soul lifted, then there’s going to be a different way you walk and talk. Someone’s going to notice that… that’s what Juneteenth does. For those moments that you’re there, you’re caught up in this amazing energy.
Once we all have that enlightenment, that understanding. Then we bring that together.
Shereese: What do you want to leave with us today about Juneteenth?
Lee: The universal importance of freedom. It’s not a Black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s not a brown thing. Freedom is freedom. If you celebrate freedom, then you should be celebrating Juneteenth.
Must-Play Songs at Juneteenth
Shoreé asked Lee for his top three must-play songs at any Juneteenth celebration. Lee listed:
Juneteenth 2021 in the Twin Cities
You can find information about Juneteenth Twin Cities on the Minneapolis Park Board website.
One special event this year is the “Juneteenth Flight for Freedom.” At 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, the festival organizers will fly 157 kites to represent 156 past years of freedom and one additional kite for the coming year of freedom.