The Juneteenth Flag: The History Behind Its Colors and Symbols

The red, white, and blue design of the Juneteenth flag may not be quite as iconic as the one emblazoned on the U.S. flag, but for Black Americans, the flag commemorating their emancipation is every bit as meaningful as Old Glory.

Every country has a flag to represent it. In the United States, Old Glory’s familiar red, white, and blue stars and stripes fly over government buildings, businesses, institutions, and private homes in recognition of July 4, 1776, the day the 13 original U.S. colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. The flag is also symbolic of cultural and historic solidarity for Americans, a shared past, present, and future—which is precisely what the Juneteenth flag means to Black Americans. Remember: The Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to them when it was signed in 1776. So, what is Juneteenth? It commemorates June 19, 1865, the day two months after the end of the Civil War that Union General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, and enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively freeing all enslaved people.

Although the Juneteenth flag didn’t arrive until 122 years after Black Americans gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War, it reflects, for them, many of the same qualities the U.S. flag reflects for all Americans. It’s a celebration of Black patriots and Black patriotism, past and present. It’s not nearly as instantly recognizable as the American flag, but the Juneteenth flag is gaining increasing significance, not just for Black Americans but for all Americans. In honor of the holiday, you’ll also want to check out these Juneteenth quotes that will inspire you.

Is Juneteenth a flag holiday?

Falling 15 days before the 4th of July, on June 19, Juneteenth became a federal holiday in the United States on June 17, 2021. Before it was a national holiday, though, nearly all of the states recognized Juneteenth in some way. Texas, the state where Juneteenth was founded, led the way in 1979, promoting it from a symbolic holiday to an official one in the state Congress. Beginning in 1980, it was celebrated as a paid state holiday for the first time in the Lone Star State. After the murder of George Floyd by a White policeman in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the subsequent anti-racism protests, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey followed Texas’ lead, with the latter moving to wave the Juneteenth flag on the third Friday of every June going forward. In 2021, Washington and Oregon both passed legislation to upgrade Juneteenth to a paid state holiday.

Who made the Juneteenth flag?

In 1997, more than two centuries after Betsy Ross is said to have sewn the first American flag, Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, developed a new American flag. The activist also known as Boston Ben led a team of collaborators that created the design concept for the Juneteenth flag as a reflection of the Juneteenth slogan “a new freedom, a new people, a new star” and, as Haith’s foundation puts it, “a star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land, over a new horizon.”

“This country has so many aspects to it that are spiritual, and I believe this flag is of that nature,” Haith said at the time. “[The idea for the design] just came through me.” In 2000, before the Juneteenth flag was about to be raised for the first time in Boston, a local illustrator named Lisa Jeanne Graf fine-tuned the original design by Haith and company. Beginning in 2007, “June 19, 1865” was added to the flag in commemoration of the day emancipation arrived for Blacks in the state of Texas, making them the final slaves in the United States to achieve their freedom.

RELATED: “I’m a Black American—Here’s Why I Don’t Celebrate the Fourth of July”

What are the colors for Juneteenth?

Red, white, and blue, the colors of the Juneteenth flag, echo the iconic colors of the American flag. These three colors appear on the Juneteenth flag as a second declaration of independence: Black Americans—from the former slaves to their living descendants—were and are free Americans, too. These colors, however, aren’t the only ones associated with the holiday. Some celebrations also use the red, black, and green Pan-African flag that was created in 1920 and designed by the legendary Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey as a Black liberation flag. The Pan-African flag, which has influenced the flags of several African and Caribbean countries, represents not just Black Americans but the entire African diaspora.

What are the symbols for the Juneteenth flag?

The star at the center of the Juneteenth flag has two separate meanings. For one, it represents the state of Texas that is so pivotal to both the holiday’s origin story and its increasingly hallowed status. The Lone Star State’s flag, like the Juneteenth flag, also features a solitary star in its design, but in the latter, it stands not for the freedom of people in one state but for the freedom of Black Americans in every state.

The burst around the star represents a nova, which, in astronomical terms, is a new star. It was intended to symbolize a new beginning for Black Americans in the country they helped build. Meanwhile, the curve that serves as the border between the red and blue stands for new horizons. Emancipation was supposed to bring a brighter collective future for Black Americans. Although their dreams wouldn’t begin to be truly realized until after desegregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a century after emancipation, the curve is symbolic of the hope that drove Black Americans then and continues to drive them to this day, even as institutional racism persists. They are as American as White Americans, and that irreversible status is underscored by the red, white, and blue of the Juneteenth flag.

On her website, Lisa Jeanne Graf, the woman who fine-tuned the final version of the Juneteenth flag, offers a succinct explanation of its various elements: “The Juneteenth flags represent the history, and freedom [of] the American Slaves and their descendants. The design of the Juneteenth flag depicts a bursting ‘new star’ on the horizon. The star represents A NEW FREEDOM, A NEW PEOPLE, A NEW STAR. The red, white, and blue colors communicate that the American Slaves and their descendants were all Americans.”

RELATED: Institutions You Didn’t Know Had Ties to Slavery

What is the significance of the Juneteenth flag to all Americans?

In 2020, on the first Juneteenth after the murder of George Floyd, the Juneteenth flag flew over a number of U.S. cities for the first time, as a show of solidarity with those cities’ Black communities and Black Americans in general. In Cincinnati, it flew right below the American flag at City Hall. “The one thing I truly, truly believe is Juneteenth is not a Black holiday—it is an American holiday, and all Americans need to celebrate our history,” said Juneteenth Festival founder Lydia Morgan, who donated the flag that waved above Cincinnati City Hall.

The Juneteenth flag also flew over the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison for the first time in 2020, temporarily replacing the rainbow flag that hovers over the East Wing to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month throughout June. Meanwhile, in Syracuse, both the Juneteenth flag and the U.S. flag were flown at half-mast at City Hall on June 19, 2020, to memorialize the lives lost to COVID-19. Since its official Boston debut in 2000, annual Juneteenth flag-raising ceremonies have been launched in a number of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, Memphis, Galveston, and Omaha.

Where can you buy the Juneteenth flag?

Versions of the Juneteenth flag are available for purchase on a number of websites, including Amazon and Etsy. At the online NJOF Store and Juneteenth Shopping Mall, it comes “with attached round grommets is lightweight nylon with superb wearing strength. The imprint is 100% show-through to the backside with a long lasting color-fast die.” It is designed to be flown on a flagpole or hung on a wall. Displaying one serves as a symbolic gesture to complement the ways we can fight racism every day.

Sources:

  • History.com: “Texas passes a bill becoming the first state in the nation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday”
  • NBC News: “Hawaii close to honoring Juneteenth, leaving 1 state holdout”
  • Dwell: “Here’s What You Need to Know About the Juneteenth Flag”
  • Oprah Daily: “The True Meaning of the Juneteenth Flag, Explained”
  • CNN: “The Juneteenth flag is full of symbols. Here’s what they mean”
  • L.J. Graf: “Design: Flags”
  • WLWT5: “Juneteenth flag flies above city hall for first time in Cincinnati history”
  • Wisconsin State Journal: “Juneteenth flag to fly above Wisconsin state Capitol for first time”
TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-RACE-UNRESTJOHANNES EISELE/Getty Images

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Jeremy Helligar
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer and editor at People, Teen People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. He has covered entertainment, pop culture, travel, politics, race, and LGBTQ issues for Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Queerty, The Root, Variety, and The Wrap, among other websites and publications. Before returning to New York City in 2019, he spent 13 years living and working in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok, Cape Town, Sydney, and across Europe while writing his two travelogue memoirs, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? And Storms in Africa.