A messenger rode a stubborn mule from Washington, D.C., to Texas; a boat sailed toward the shores of Galveston — these are the varied folktales of how the message of freedom came to the enslaved African people of Texas on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War.

This became a day for celebration and remembrance founded in Galveston and eventually adopted across the United States long before it was declared a national holiday by President Joe Biden in 2021. 

Traditionally, Juneteenth has been an occasion of Black joy: beauty pageants, games, processions and parades, spirituals and blues music. In New Orleans, Juneteenth has been commemorated by charity runs, brass bands, a bicycle rodeo, marching social and pleasure clubs and prizes. Most recently, it has been adopted alongside local lore of justice and freedom from a time nearly 80 years before emancipation. 

Freedom did not come at the same time to everyone 

The story of freedom in New Orleans is different than in Texas. In 1862, the Union Navy captured the city of New Orleans. It became a place of “quasi-freedom” and a refuge for people escaping slavery in the River Parishes under Confederate control. When freedom came to Galveston, just 400 miles west, emancipation had already been established in New Orleans. 

Though Juneteenth celebrations are not traditional to New Orleans, their importance is both real and symbolic. 

“It makes it concrete to say that here is a date that we can use to celebrate freedom … no matter when it came to other places,” said Eva Baham, former professor of history at Dillard University. “And so we owe it to the Texans, to the Black Texans who decided after they were informed that they were free, that we would use this as a day to say freedom came.” 

A member of one of the social and pleasure clubs that participated in the Juneteenth second line celebrations at Juneteenth Fest in Congo Square in 2022, hosted by the Louisiana Afro-Indigenous Society. Credit: Justin Harenchar

Though it is unclear when Juneteenth celebrations began in New Orleans, historians and folklorists have speculated that the tradition may have spread outside of Texas during the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, and at the March on Washington in 1968 when Juneteenth celebrations began to spring up across the country, according to the late William H. Wiggins, a native Louisianian and author of “O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations,” who taught Afro-American Studies at Indiana University.

Juneteenth in New Orleans has had ebbs and flows, but its celebrations are remembered going back to the 1990s. John Mosley was one of the key organizers holding up Juneteenth as a day of celebration in the city. In 1994, he helped organize the first Juneteenth 5K run. The Juneteenth festival that year began with a parade. There was also a “Gospel Extravaganza,” performances by The Westbank Community Men’s Day Chorus, and an oral history of Treme culture performed in a three-part play. 

The Lore of Jean Saint Malo 

By coincidence or by providence, the date of June 19 does hold historical significance for freedom and justice in New Orleans but for different reasons. A local hero and maroon rebel is also commemorated on this day for his bravery, nearly 80 years before emancipation. 

According to Creole legend, Jean Saint Malo, or Juan San Malo, was a maroon rebel leader who escaped slavery just outside New Orleans and took refuge in its bayous and swamps. He became a leader of the maroon people and led a rebellion against French and Spanish slaveholders. For his actions, he was executed on June 19, 1784, in what is now known as Jackson Square. His name is sung in Creole folk songs, and remembered by storytellers and historians on June 19, nearly 240 years after his death. 

Chef Martha Wiggins scooping her delicious greens at Afro-Freedom / Afro-Feast Juneteenth event in 2022, hosted by Dakar NOLA restaurant and Chef Serigne Mbaye. Credit: Clay Williams

Now, his memory has been integrated into Juneteenth celebrations in Congo Square. The Louisiana Afro-Indigenous Society has been hosting the New Orleans Juneteenth festival since 2020 when founder Shaddai Livingston, was called by a community elder, Baderinwa Rolland to bring back a Juneteenth festival to the city. 

“I got some pushback on Juneteenth the first year I did it,” Livingston said, remembering questions about the significance of Juneteenth to New Orleans. “‘This is New Orleans, not Texas. We celebrate Juan Malo, because Juan Malo is the same day. Why are we celebrating Juneteenth?’” she remembers being asked. 

In response, the Louisiana Afro-Indigenous society held a panel discussion on the meaning of freedom in New Orleans and the celebration of emancipation. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. 

Since 2020, Livingston says the festival has grown from about 100 people in its first year to around 1,000 people in 2022. Participants gathered in Congo Square to celebrate Juneteenth,  pay homage to local heroes such as Baderinwa Rolland, who passed away in 2021, and to the legacy and memory of Jean Saint Malo through folksongs and performances.

Writer and filmmaker Lolis Elie reads reflections on Juneteenth to the seated crowd at Afro-Freedom / Afro-Feast in 2022, hosted by Dakar NOLA restaurant and Chef Serigne Mbaye Credit: Clay Williams.

This year the New Orleans Juneteenth festival will run from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Congo Square and will feature a lineup of New Orleans artists — the Lower 9 Dolls, Tonya Boyd Cannon, Waterseed, Keedy Black, the Maroons — as well as a community marriage ceremony,  and more than 70 vendors and community resource partners. 

“What Juneteenth is, it’s a celebration but it’s also an act of remembrance,” said Malik Bartholomew, the founder and director at Know NOLA Tours and the Archives and Special Collections assistant at Dillard University. “It is important in New Orleans that we lift up our own legends as well. I’ve always connected Juneteenth with Juan San Malo, because it’s not divorced from each other.” 

The celebrations of freedom and of Juneteenth have been rich and varied. From galas, block parties, wellness days, film screenings, performances and feasts in City Park, this year in New Orleans there are many different ways to remember, and to embrace joy and freedom this long weekend.  

Looking for a Juneteenth event to attend? Check out our guide below:



Mizizi Juneteenth Dance Weekender

Time and Location: Running daily June 16-19 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

Dance Quarter, 1719 Toledano St 

Information on the event can be found here


Freedom Festival at the Whitney Plantation 

  • 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
  • Whitney Plantation, 5099 LA-18 Edgard, La
  • Information on the event can be found here

Afro Caribbean Day Party / Juneteenth Weekend

  • 2 p.m.- 8 p.m.  
  • Culture Park NOLA 3000 Franklin Avenue
  • Information on the event can be found here

Freedom Breath New Orleans

  • 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. 
  •  Dillard University, 2601 Gentilly Boulevard
  • Information on the event can be found here

Afrobeats Juneteenth Day Party

  • 4 p.m.-10 p.m.  
  • Afrodisiac Restaurant, 5363 Franklin Avenue
  • Information can be found here


Celebrating Juneteenth at New Orleans Museum of Art 

  • 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 
  • New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins Diboll Circle
  • Information on the event can be found here.

Free Your Soul New Orleans / Juneteenth Wellness Experience

  • 10 a.m.
  • Freedom Apothecary, 1600 Magazine Street
  • Information on the event can be found here.

Freedom Gala hosted by the Louisiana Afro-Indigenous Society 

  • 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
  • Andre Cailloux Center 2541 Bayou Road 
  • Information on the event can be found here.

Juneteenth Celebration: Afro-Freedom / Afro Feast 

  • 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.
  • Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park at 150 Zachary Taylor Drive 
  • Information on the event can be found here.


New Orleans Juneteenth Festival hosted by the Louisiana Afro-Indigenous Society

  • June 19, 12 p.m. -7 p.m.
  • Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park
  • Information on the event can be found here.

Original founders of the Juneteenth Celebration in the 1990s, John Mosley and  Dereck Alexander are looking for photos, videos, posters or other memorabilia from the celebrations, beginning in 1990 and running until 2006, as many of these items were lost in Hurricane Katrina. 

If you attended the Juneteenth Celebrations in New Orleans during those dates and have any of the above items, please contact John Mosley at johnmosleysr@cox.net or Dereck Alexander at warriorone727@gmail.com

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Climate and multimedia journalist Lue Palmer is a native of Toronto, Canada, with roots in Jamaica. Before entering their career in journalism, Lue was a writer, documentarian and podcaster, covering race,...