What Juneteenth Means to Me and to Black Elders

Editor’s Note: The John A. Hartford Foundation is collaborating with ASA to advance equity in aging by supporting ASA RISE, a 20-week social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color in aging, and via the development and dissemination of equity-related, partnership-based thought leadership through ASA’s Generations platform. This blog post is part of that series.


To be honest, I did not know what Juneteenth was until about four years ago. Up until then, I recognized February as the month to acknowledge the struggles and significant accomplishments of People of Color, celebrating the strides made to ensure a better future for generations to come.

However, the profound impact of Juneteenth became clear in 2020, during a pivotal moment in history when the world was forced to pause, and the harsh realities of hate and injustice were exposed across social media and in our justice system. As I witnessed these events unfold, I couldn't help but ask myself, "How did we get here?"

In truth, we had always been here, but society had consistently chosen to silence these issues. It took the tumultuous era of POTUS 45 to break that silence, prompting a much-needed reckoning.

During this time, the deaths of Freddie Gray and George Floyd became symbols of the systemic racism and brutality faced by Black people in America. Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 from injuries sustained while in police custody, and George Floyd, whose murder by a police officer in 2020 was captured on video, sparked widespread outrage and protests.

Under POTUS 45, these peaceful protests were often met with violent responses from law enforcement, further highlighting the deep-seated prejudices in our justice system. The images of protestors being tear-gassed and assaulted by police officers during demonstrations were broadcast across the globe, revealing the stark reality of racial injustice in America.

The violence that ensued during peaceful protests under POTUS 45’s Administration allowed the world to witness the extent of the systemic oppression faced by Black communities. It forced many, including myself, to confront uncomfortable truths about our society and the pervasive nature of racism. This period of unrest and reflection led me to a deeper understanding of Juneteenth and its significance.

Uplifting Silenced Voices

In the past six months, I entered into a transformative and awakening phase in my life when I was selected as an ASA Rise fellow. This experience has taught me to use my voice and my privilege to capture a wider audience and to take part in creating systemic change for the better. Through this fellowship, in my work I have learned to advocate more effectively, addressing the very issues that Juneteenth highlights—collaborating with community leaders to better understand the needs of the people in Maryland, partnering with organizations to help address unmet needs and working in Villages to build community and utilize existing strengths.

‘I have learned to advocate more effectively, addressing the issues that Juneteenth highlights.’

Juneteenth commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people. This was more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. For Black elders who lived through segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, Juneteenth is a poignant reminder of the long and arduous fight for freedom and equality. It symbolizes the end of physical bondage but also highlights the ongoing struggle against systemic oppression and racism.

For Black elders, Juneteenth is not just a historic milestone, but a deeply personal and emotional reminder of their lived experiences and the sacrifices made by their ancestors.

My grandmother's story serves as a powerful example. Born into the harsh reality of late 1930s Hazlehurst, Miss., as a child she picked cotton with her bare hands and experienced the oppressive conditions of Jim Crow laws firsthand. Her mother was often away caring for white children and cooking and cleaning for white households. Despite these daunting circumstances, my grandmother managed to transcend these barriers through education and perseverance. Her achievements are a testament to the progress that has been made, but they also underscore the systemic barriers that continue.

Honoring Ancestors and Elders

For me, Juneteenth represents a vital moment for celebration and reflection. It signifies the resilience of our people who have endured horrifying circumstances—the brutality of slavery, the dehumanizing conditions of Jim Crow laws, and the relentless violence of lynchings—yet continue to fight for justice and equality. This day is a recognition of the injustices we have faced transposed against the excellence we have achieved despite those challenges. It’s a time to honor the legacy of my grandmother. Her journey from the cotton fields to becoming a college graduate epitomizes the transformative opportunities that have emerged over time.

The federal recognition of Juneteenth only scratches the surface of the vast history that has been lost. Juneteenth opened my eyes to the importance of celebrating our ancestors and reflecting on the arduous journey we have undertaken as a people. It serves as a reminder that while we have only begun to understand our culture and the many identities and customs that were lost, also it is an opportunity to build a brighter future. This day honors the strength and resilience of our elders, whose lives are a testament to the progress we have made.

‘This day honors the strength and resilience of our elders, whose lives are a testament to the progress we have made.’

It is a day to celebrate the cultural heritage and contributions of Black people, while also recognizing the work that remains to be done. The struggles and triumphs of our elders provide a blueprint for how we can fight for justice and equality in our own lives.

I work on this day in and day out, incorporating voices that have been silenced to now be heard. Embedding their lived experiences into opportunities to be heard and seen through legislation and programs that will help them to age in place with respect, safety, dignity and in a home of their choosing. This day also encourages us to reflect on our collective journey as a community. It is an opportunity to educate ourselves and others about the history and significance of Juneteenth and to foster a deeper understanding of the systemic issues that continue to impact Black communities. By doing so, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society that honors the legacy of our ancestors and paves the way for future generations.

This day serves as a catalyst for continued activism and advocacy, inspiring us to challenge perceptions, fight against systemic oppression, and build a brighter future for all. Juneteenth is not just a celebration of freedom; it is a call to action to ensure that the promise of equality and justice is realized for everyone.

Chelsea Wheeler is manager, Supportive Communities, for the Maryland Department of Aging in Baltimore.

Photo caption: Chelsea Wheeler at a reception in San Francisco during On Aging 2024.

Photo credit: Courtesy Chelsea Wheeler.