Adrian Miller on Juneteenth and Kansas City Barbecue

Adrian Miller discusses the connection between Juneteenth, Kansas City barbecue, and who invented burnt ends.

Published June 18, 2021.

America's barbecue culture is a many-splendored thing that embraces various regional styles and traditions. For African Americans, the “Juneteenth” barbecue holds a special place in community life. This annual celebration was born on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. That day, Major General Gordon Granger, commanding officer for the district of Texas for the Union Army, read General Order No. 3, which stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free . . ."

The announcement arrived two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to liberate enslaved people living in the rebellious states of the Confederacy, and nearly six months after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially outlawed slavery in the entire country.

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By 1866, Black communities throughout Texas commemorated the anniversary of their true freedom, a second Independence Day, with what they called “the 19th of June” or the “June 19th” celebration. By the 1910s, “Juneteenth” became the more popular nickname for this occasion, which featured any combination of speeches (many by formerly enslaved people); church services; concerts; parades; athletic games (especially baseball); and a very impressive feast featuring “red foods” such as barbecue, strawberry soda, and watermelon. Juneteenth grew so popular that it became an official Texas state holiday in 1980, and it's now gaining momentum to become a national holiday.

Why? Because Texans are very good cheerleaders for their own traditions, especially when they move somewhere else. Juneteenth first spread from the Lone Star State to Oklahoma, and then to other parts of the country. That's how Juneteenth made its way to Kansas City, Missouri.

When he was a child, Horace Peterson III moved there with his family from his native Tulsa, Oklahoma, sometime in the 1950s. He always remembered how Juneteenth brought Tulsa's Black community together, and he wanted to bring that same spirit to his adopted city. In 1980, he started Kansas City's annual Juneteenth celebration, and it endures to this day.

Kansas City is a true “melting pit” of different regional barbecue styles, hearkening back to its past as a major agricultural and commercial center, especially for livestock-related industries. It's not a city limited to just one barbecue dish or one type of meat. Want some pork? Several restaurants offer spareribs, shoulder, sausages (often combined with beef), and even snoots (pig snouts). Chicken or lamb? They've got that, too. Craving some beef? Order some beef brisket (chopped or sliced) or “burnt ends,” the city's signature barbecue dish.

Burnt ends are the brainchild of Arthur Bryant, one of the city's legendary African American barbecuers. Instead of throwing away the extra charred, crispy, fatty, and slightly meaty pieces left after cutting brisket, he gave them to his customers to snack on as they waited in line for their food. With all the barbecue goodness happening in Kansas City, it's hard to imagine a more perfect place outside of Texas to pair barbecue and Juneteenth.

Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award–winning author based in Denver, Colorado. His newest book is Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (2021).

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