Earlier this month, Madison Corzine, 16, was crowned Miss Juneteenth Fort Worth. The new Queen of Liberty graciously accepted her crown after entering a four-day competition in Texas that included categories for essay writing, interview questions, talent and evening dress. His prize: a $1,000 scholarship to the college, college or training institute of his choice. But it is also much more than that.
Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, serves as a pipeline of possibilities. It began as a day of revelation on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas were finally told about the Emancipation Proclamation – nearly two years after the decree was formalized.
Today, black communities in Galveston and across the country celebrate the holiday through a variety of traditions, including the Miss Juneteenth and Little Miss Juneteenth pageants, like the one Corzine entered. The original pageant was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but today pageants are held in cities across the south and across the country, along with an annual national Miss Juneteenth pageant.
Filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples captured the culture, class struggles, impact and scope of this sacred tradition in his 2020 film, Miss Juneteenth. The drama follows the story of Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen who works multiple jobs to support her child, Kai, whom she entered into the local Miss Juneteenth pageant in hopes of winning a scholarship for a HBCUs. “I was exploring that Juneteenth theme and what delayed freedom meant to Turquoise as a character,” Peoples told The Takeaway in a 2021 interview.
The women of Miss Juneteenth, Peoples said, reflected her lived experiences and observations of women within her own community, particularly her mother. “I watched her… navigate her own dreams while juggling raising children. There was this sense of courage, this sense of determination, but I also saw her and the women in my community behave with grace,” she said.
In real life, Miss Juneteenth pageants are also a reflection of something bigger. They commemorate a moment of celebration — as well as deep frustration with the ongoing struggle for human rights — that black people turned into a day of joy. While Miss Juneteenth is a meaningful tradition in its own right, it has also become the backdrop for a long legacy of pageantry and excellence that includes black debutante balls and HBCU pageants.
Pageants like Miss Juneteenth were originally created in the belief that mainstreaming white pageants was not a safe possibility for black people – if black people were even allowed to participate at all. In the same way that black Greek life and the black press were created despite white domination, black pageants offered a world of joy in the midst of the Jim Crow era. And it still matters today. As Treva B. Lindsey, professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University, put it The New York Times last year, even though black women competed (and won) in mainstream beauty pageants, “it’s still in relation to a presumed default culture of whiteness.”
This is not the case with Miss Juneteenth or similar black pageants. These events represent the re-imagining of royalty by black culture; they are beacons of excellence and greatness that bring people together and elevate black women as leaders in their communities.
Miss Juneteenth, much like the holidays themselves, is more than a surface celebration. That’s why, as the country moves away from work and school to commemorate June 19, it’s critical that traditions of Black liberation are centered and clear to all. To whitewash a complex day of mourning that shines a light on the end of furniture slavery would be to erase a history that must be preserved and led by black women.