While many of us are just beginning to establish Juneteenth traditions, Tina Knowles is an OG when it comes to celebrating our Emancipation Day.
“Juneteenth has been a part of my life since early childhood,” Knowles tells ESSENCE. “My family didn’t really celebrate the Fourth of July. We celebrated Juneteenth.”
Throughout the years, Knowles, who was born in Galveston, Texas, where the holiday originated, has educated friends and family members on the significance of June 19, otherwise known as Jubilee Day. And this year she partnered with Facebook to continue spreading the word as part of the social media platform’s special week of programming centered on Black joy, freedom and resilience.
We chatted with Knowles about her family’s Juneteenth traditions, her favorite soul food dishes to cook on the holiday and whether Black people should celebrate the Fourth of July.
ESSENCE: A lot of the Black community is just now learning about Juneteenth. When do you first remember learning about Liberation Day?
TINA KNOWLES: It was a part of my family celebration and most of the Black community’s. It consisted of us going to the beach—a lot of people don’t realize Galveston is an island. When I was a kid, we were kind of confined to two city blocks, but we inhabited that beach. It was so packed with people and you saw your friends and family and it was a very simple celebration. My momma used to take all the kids in the neighborhood. We used to go to the beach all the time, but on this day, families got together and they celebrated because they knew the significance of Juneteenth. And it was a conscious decision to celebrate that day because in Galveston everyone knew the history of Juneteenth.
We found out, in Galveston, two years later than everybody else in the rest of the country that enslaved people were free. General Granger came down with all of these Black soldiers and they went to a place called Ashton Villa, which was a plantation at the time, and they stood on the balcony and said that we were free. So everybody in Galveston knows the significance. They know what it means.
ESSENCE: How did you keep that tradition alive when you started your own family?
KNOWLES: My family—my girls, and my niece—we as a family always celebrated with a barbecue. It’s funny because I’ve talked to a lot of people from the South, and they knew about Juneteenth because it started in Galveston and moved all through the South, but they celebrate with a fish fry. I’ve heard many people say, “Oh, well I do fish fries,” but we do barbecue because we’re from Texas.
So we’d barbecue at home. My kids grew up in Houston, but everybody in Houston, in the Black community pretty much, celebrated Juneteenth. Another thing is people took off that day. It was kind of an understood thing because none of their employers knew what was going on, but they would take their sick day or whatever day to celebrate Juneteenth.
ESSENCE: People are still a bit hesitant about large gatherings this year. What do you have in mind for next Juneteenth?
KNOWLES: When I had the last celebration, it was probably about 150 people that came over and we just barbecued—I mean my husband barbecued; won’t be doing that again. And then I made soul food. There were some fireworks, which I shouldn’t be saying, but we had some fireworks too. It was really fun.
I encourage everybody to have their own barbecue or their own fish fry if that’s what your tradition is. I got into this big debate with somebody. They’re like, “No, you’re supposed to have a fish fry.” And I’m like, “Look, I’m from Galveston. Don’t tell me how we celebrate Juneteenth.”
ESSENCE: Speaking of debate, what do you think about the idea that Black people shouldn’t celebrate the Fourth of July?
KNOWLES: I feel like to each his own. If you want to celebrate the Fourth of July, that’s fine. Why not? But for me, my choice is Juneteenth.
ESSENCE: Let’s get back to that soul food you mentioned. What’s your favorite dish to make?
KNOWLES: I do this mac and cheese and my kids joke, “Oh, Mama, now you got bougie,” because I’ll put truffles in it. I mix my childhood mac and cheese with a bunch of cheeses, but it’s really great. And I do cabbage and smothered steak and baked chicken, the usual thing. I can’t say one thing is my favorite because it’s the whole combination. When you get a bit of yams and greens and mac and cheese together, it’s like an explosion.
ESSENCE: Last year, Beyoncé released “Black Parade” on Juneteenth. How did it feel to see your daughter carry on the Juneteenth tradition in that way?
KNOWLES: Oh God, that was amazing. I love that song. That’s my song. In Galveston, they’re going to unveil a 5,000-square-foot mural depicting the whole journey for our people, from the getting off and landing in Galveston off the slave ships and all the way up to present marches last year, because of George Floyd, all of the marches. And it is the most magnificent mural. I’m really proud of that because that’s big for Galveston so I’m trying to get ‘Black Parade’ to be the song for that.
That’s what I remember. We sat on a beach all day and in the afternoon there was a parade on the beach, a Juneteenth parade, and it usually consisted of the marching band from the high school and the other high schools and all the Black businesses riding on cars. It wasn’t this big, crazy parade, but for us, we just partied and had a good time. Parades are a big part of Juneteenth in Texas.
For more information on Juneteenth, visit Facebook’s Lift Black Voices Hub.