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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 8:00am June 17, 2023,

How strawberry soda pop became associated with Juneteenth celebration

Photo: 1420 WBSM

Every year, Juneteenth, which is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States, comes with activities such as prayer and religious services, family gatherings, picnics, educational programs, and festivals with music and food, particularly the famous strawberry soda. In fact, food and drinks with red hues such as red velvet cake, barbecue and red punch are always available during the celebration commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day in the United States, Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of some 250,000 enslaved people in Texas in 1865. In fact, slavery had ended in 1863 with an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation that called for the immediate freedom of slaves throughout the country. Unfortunately, many enslaved people, especially those in the South, were still not free. The country was in the middle of a Civil War and states like Texas which had seceded from the Union did not adhere to the Proclamation.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery continued in Texas until two and a half years later when Union General Gordon Granger and his soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and made residents aware that slavery had been abolished. 

“When slaves were made aware that they were free, they had a celebration. The way they celebrated was with everything that was red to symbolize the blood that was shed by the slaves,” Lynda Jackson Conyers, a former Milwaukee Public School teacher, said to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Watermelon, barbecue, red velvet cake and strawberry soda were some of the food and drinks slaves celebrated Juneteenth with. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the strawberry drink had before then been reserved for slave owners and slaves were banned from having it.

“When they found out that they were free slaves, they then decided that this was their chance, this was their opportunity to celebrate,” Conyers said. “And the way they celebrated, was by partaking in drinking the strawberry beverage.”

But the strawberry soda and other red food and drinks were not only featured because they symbolize the bloodshed in the struggle for freedom but also because they may have a history coming from West Africa where most enslaved men and women came from. According to food writer Michael Twitty in his blog Afroculinaria, “the practice of eating red foods—red cake, barbecue, punch and fruit—may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century,” from present-day Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What’s more, historically in West Africa, red drinks, usually made from hibiscus tea or kola nuts (two native West African plants), were always a part of celebrations and were carried over to the Americas and the Caribbean. 

Some enslaved people also used red corn to make their own whiskey. This means that even before Juneteenth, the color red was an essential part of the food experience. Historian Adrian Miller explains that during the Southern Cooking era, molasses and water and red lemonade were inexpensive, refreshing drinks that could be made easily and quickly. Today, despite the abundance of Juneteenth activities such as music, food, film and art celebrations, it is always eventful to add the strawberry soda pop.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 16, 2023


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