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How an annual pageant became a beloved Juneteenth celebration in Texas and beyond

For its participants, Miss Juneteenth is more than a beauty pageant. It's a celebration of joy, a remembrance of pain and an honoring of Black girlhood.
/ Source: NBC News

Precious Maku, 16, didn’t know the history of Juneteenth when she moved to Fort Worth, Texas, with her family about two years ago.

“I saw my friends posting about it on Snapchat in 10th grade saying ‘Happy Juneteenth!’” Maku said. “That’s how I found out it was even a thing. Then I started doing my research.”

A teacher suggested she check out the local Miss Juneteenth pageant as a way to celebrate the holiday and learn even more. She did. And then she won.

Maku, a teen who prefers jeans to sparkly dresses, found herself marching across the stage at Texas Wesleyan University in an elaborate gown to be crowned Miss Juneteenth.

“It’s not like me to enter a pageant and win,” she said. “I’m still processing everything. Like, I’m Miss Juneteenth!”

Maku joins a long line of young Black girls who have taken home the coveted crown in the decades-old pageant, in which teens compete for a scholarship, usually to a historically Black college or university, and other prizes. The girls display their talent, wear an evening gown, write an essay and answer questions on stage.

But, over the years, Fort Worth’s Miss Juneteenth pageant has become even more significant: It’s a chance for Black girls in Texas to promote the historic holiday and gain funding for college, while commemorating the pain and joy of the life-changing day. Similar pageants have popped up in Texas and several other states over the years, and 2020 marked the first National Miss Juneteenth Pageant held in Tennessee. Delaware’s Miss Juneteenth, Saniya Gay, claimed the national title.

The pageant was even the subject of the 2020 film “Miss Juneteenth,” by Channing Godfrey Peoples about a single mother (played by Nicole Beharie), who wants her 15-year-old daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) to win the Fort Worth pageant. Former Miss Juneteenth Triniti Franklin made an appearance in the film.

With that, Andrea Sledge, director of the pageant, said she’s ecstatic to see the pageant making headlines.

“This is more than a pageant,” Sledge said. “It’s an opportunity for character-building, self-esteem building and helping the girls cultivate what they want to do with their lives post-high-school and beyond. This is literally like watching these girls blossom. They come to you in their shells, and they’re shy. They’re not really sure of themselves. They’re quiet. Then the lights come on and something happens when their excellence is put on a platform for all to see.”

The competition is just one of many celebrations birthed from the historic event. On June 19, 1865, the news had finally reached Black Texans in Galveston, still living in slave conditions, that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery two years prior.

In 1872, a group of ministers and businessmen bought 10 acres of land in nearby Houston and created Emancipation Park, where they planned to hold official Juneteenth celebrations.

Juneteenth has remained a day full of events and joy. In fact, said Brenna Greer, a history professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the celebrations began “almost immediately” when the enslaved African Americans first learned the news.

“They called it ‘Jubilee Day’ or ‘Freedom Day.’ In the area of Galveston and radiating out of that, Black people in Texas were taking that day to observe this event in the Black experience,” Greer said. “You can even find photographs from the 1880s of African Americans in their best clothing posing for pictures on Juneteenth or decorating carriages, decorating their houses in celebration of Juneteenth.”

Texas officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, and at least 45 states now also recognize the occasion to varying degrees.

Opal Lee, 94, an activist in Fort Worth, has made it her life’s work to have Juneteenth designated as a national holiday. Lee, who was also featured in the movie, said she will campaign for the cause for as long as she lives. Incidentally, both the U.S. House and the Senate passed legislation this week to make the occasion a legal public holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Her love for the holiday is palpable each year as she attends or takes part in several Juneteenth events. In 2016, at 89, she set out on a journey from her Fort Worth home to Washington, D.C., walking 2 1/2 miles a day in a public effort to have Juneteenth made a national holiday. She didn’t complete the journey, but she walked hundreds of miles, she said.

On June 19, she will lead a group on a 2 1/2-mile walk through Fort Worth from Evans Avenue Plaza to Panther Island Pavilion in honor of her effort. The local figure is often involved in several Juneteenth events, especially the annual pageant.

“The young people learn so many things and they take pride in it. It’s something in our community that’s so worthwhile to do,” she said.

Before Congress voted this week to recognize the holiday, Lee predicted she would be around to see Juneteenth become a nationally recognized day, "if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise!" she said.

She added, "this is not just a Texas thing. None of us are free until we're all free, and we aren't free yet. There are too many disparities that we need to be addressing, and we can do it together."

Even for all its historic significance, the Miss Juneteenth pageant fell prey to the Covid-19 pandemic — like many other annual events in the country. The illness and its economic fallout had an outsize effect on Black people.

The history of Juneteenth

June 19, 202002:56

This, Sledge said, meant that many Black girls could not afford to pay the competition’s registration fee or buy the elegant gowns needed for the big day. Sledge said several of the 15 girls who signed up for the competition last year were forced to drop out due to financial woes or because they had to help care for their families throughout the pandemic.

This year, the pageant organizers decided to offer financial assistance through scholarships, reduced fees and sponsors. The registration fee, usually $100, was halved, and girls could use donated gowns instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a pageant dress.

"I take it personally when a young lady tells me, 'I really would like to be a part of this, but I can’t afford the $50,' or, 'My mom can’t afford it, and I can’t afford a dress,'" Sledge said. "We’ve been extremely blessed this year to have the venue donated, so we don’t have to worry about a lot of overhead. So we were able to cut some fees because we don’t have a large operating expense budget."

The financial assistance certainly came in handy. Maku said she would not have been able to enter the pageant without it. Meanwhile, other pageant participants were eager to help those who needed it. Former Miss Juneteenth Triniti Franklin, 19, donated gowns to the pageant, and her family served as a sponsor for one participant this year.

Ariane Gibbons, the runner-up who was crowned Miss Freedom, opted out of the financial assistance to make sure funds were available for her competitors.

Gibbons, 17, grew up learning about Juneteenth. The recent competition marked her second shot at the Miss Juneteenth crown. Although she snagged the runner-up position, her mother, A’mera Frieman, said the teen is still eager to celebrate the holiday.

“She is a little disappointed, but she’s pushing through and getting ready to research what events she will attend for Juneteenth,” Frieman said, noting that it’s been a joy to see one of her three daughters in a beauty pageant. “As a Black mom who is very knowledgeable about Juneteenth, I may have had one or two dreams about seeing one of my three girls in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.