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The National Juneteenth Museum Breaks New Ground

Its goal is to help write a new story, not just memorialize history, says CEO Jarred Howard. He spoke to Brunswick’s Peter Dillon and Travis Malone weeks before the museum was set to begin construction in Fort Worth.

After President Joe Biden signed in 2021 the law which made Juneteenth a federal holiday, he turned and handed the pen to 94-year-old Dr. Opal Lee. Five years earlier, Dr. Lee (better known as Ms. Opal) had walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC as part of a campaign to get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday. “Ms. Opal, you’re incredible,” President Biden said at the signing. “A daughter of Texas. Grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday … Over the course of decades, she’s made it her mission to see that this day came.”

In the city where her famous journey for Juneteenth began, Ms. Opal is now focused on building a museum—“come hell or high water,” as she’s put it.

“I’ve got a 97-year-old poking me in the back telling me to get this done,” National Juneteenth Museum (NJM) CEO Jarred Howard told Brunswick recently, laughing. “No one wants to be guilty of letting her down. We have a lot of motivations to get this project done, but that’s a major one. We all want to see her enjoy this.”


President Joe Biden hands the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Dr. Opal Lee (second from left), the pen with which he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

Howard is leading the effort to fund and build the NJM, a 50,000-square cultural center in Fort Worth’s Historic Southside neighborhood distinctive in its design, ambition, and business model.

“I’m not a museum person, I’m a business person,” he says. “That’s why I was the second employee we brought on—the first was Dr. Lauren Cross, our Executive Strategist, who has a PhD in this work and has done the work for the better part of the last 20 years. She was the most important person to come on board, because no matter how much money we were able to raise, it would have been wasted if we didn’t have a strategy for creating and crafting the museum.”

Prior to joining the NJM as its full-time CEO, Howard had, for years, been involved in efforts to raise awareness for Juneteenth. It was a responsibility he juggled alongside being a husband and a father of two, and alongside leadership roles at BNSF Railway, one of the nation’s largest transportation and logistics companies, and later Bell Flight, an aerospace manufacturer. A glimpse of how demanding Howard’s career has been: He’s a member of American Airlines’ vaunted million-miles program.

Howard also served as an executive on Fort Worth’s Chamber of Commerce from 2018 to 2020, and during his time there, one meeting in particular would prove exceptionally ironic: He had to explain to Ms. Opal why the Chamber could not meet her funding requests for Juneteenth activities.

Since then, Howard has played an instrumental role in helping the NJM broaden its vision as well as raise more than $35 million. Switching to the nonprofit world has changed the nature of Howard’s workload but not its intensity. When we spoke on a Monday afternoon, Howard admitted to feeling exhausted. But he was quick to add, “What I’m doing isn’t much different from what so many other people are dealing with. I was raised by a single woman who didn’t have the option of being tired. When something isn’t optional, you just find a way to get it done. And nothing I’m doing right now—the kind of husband, father, leader I want to be—is optional as far as I’m concerned. If that means I sleep four hours a night, or I have to leave on a red eye to make my meeting and then take a long flight back the same night, it just means I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”

National Juneteenth Museum CEO Jarred Howard

The NJM will soon break ground in Fort Worth’s Historic Southside neighborhood, an area once known as “the Black Wall Street of the South,” and which was home to Fort Worth’s first Black millionaire. Historic Southside is where Howard was born and raised, as were four generations of Howards before him—and it is where the NJM, when it is finished in 2026, hopefully spark change.

The community has been “downtrodden and destitute” for decades, Howard says. His descriptions are not hyperbolic. People living in Historic Southside’s zip code have the lowest life expectancy in Texas—their lives are cut short, on average, 12 years earlier than their neighbors a few miles away. The area has among the state’s highest rates of infant mortality. Economic indicators are similarly dismal. “This community is in the heart of Fort Worth, one of the fastest-growing cities in America in one of its fastest-growing states—I mean, Texas is the ninth-largest economy in the world,” Howard says. “If you look at communities surrounding Southside, they’re bursting at the seams with economic activity. This disparity isn’t because of some cosmic strategy to prevent economic development from happening here. It’s because of lines that were drawn half a century ago, highways that bisected communities, and the residual impact of those lines today.”

At a time when bipartisan support on any issue has become increasingly rare, the Texas Legislature in 2023 approved $1 million for the NJM. The City of Fort Worth agreed to a $15 million donation. The remainder of the NJM’s financing has come from fundraising events—which have featured as speakers Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson—individual donations, and the private sector.

Meta, which has a data center in Fort Worth, provided funding and sponsorship in 2023. Earlier this year, BNSF Railway announced a $2 million donation. “BNSF is proud to partner with the National Juneteenth Museum to help honor American history and foster opportunities for economic and cultural growth, right near our headquarters here in Fort Worth,” Zak Andersen, VP of corporate relations and president of the BNSF Railway Foundation, said at the time. “We look forward to all the museum will bring to the community and the country by shining a light on those who have paved the way for future generations.”

Helping reverse decades of inequality is a tall order for any institution, let alone a museum. Research by the American Alliance of Museums and Oxford Economics suggests that museums can boost local economies. Travelers who participate in cultural activities, for instance, spend 60% more money on average than other leisure travelers. Meanwhile the museum sector helps generate as much as $5 in tax revenue for every $1 of government funding.


That research, however, was conducted before the pandemic. Today, many museums are struggling to keep their doors open—let alone jumpstart a local economy. Howard acknowledges the challenges, but says the NJM has had the opportunity to learn from other leaders and museums across the country. “We’ve built a diversified revenue model so we don’t have to solely rely on footfall or donations,” he says.

In addition to 10,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, the NJM will house a business incubator, a food hall featuring local chefs and vendors, and a 250-seat theater to host lectures and performances. The latter three will all be leased by outside providers. “Those are creating opportunities for this community, and they’re creating revenue streams for us. It’ll be an ecosystem where everybody wins financially, including the museum,” says Howard.

Rather than run the business incubator itself, the NJM will partner with organizations with the expertise and desire to do so. “More than 50% of the students that graduate from high schools in this community won’t set foot on a college campus,” Howard says. “Better than 60% of the people that start elementary school here will not graduate from high school. It’s unrealistic to expect many of the children growing up in this neighborhood to ever be your doctor or lawyer or corporate executive. What they can learn are in-demand trades like plumbing. What they can become, without ever setting foot on a college campus, is an entrepreneur—some of the wealthiest people in this country right now don’t have college degrees. They can learn foundational skills it takes to start a business: financial literacy, managing debt and inventory.”

Amid such bold aims, it’s easy to lose sight of the NJM’s namesake purpose: help tell the long-overlooked story of Juneteenth. The same year that President Biden signed the law making Juneteenth a federal holiday, research by Gallup found that more than 60% of Americans either knew “nothing at all” or “a little bit” about Juneteenth (a year later, 40% of Americans still said the same).

Most Americans are probably familiar with the preamble to Juneteenth: On January 1st, 1863, the United States riven by civil war, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the country.

That proclamation, however, was neither recognized nor enforced in the eleven states that had seceded. The distinguished Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. estimates that there were nearly 4 million enslaved African Americans in 1863, and only 500,000 received their freedom because of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It wasn’t until June 19th, 1865—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two and a half months after the Civil War had effectively ended—that slavery ended on American soil. That moment —which Juneteenth commemorates—came when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and issued General Order No. 3, which both announced and enforced the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas.

“We’ve had 160 years to make Juneteenth a part of the American story, and the data is pretty clear we have a lot more to do to help everyone understand its significance,” Howard says. “So if 160 years have passed, and we haven’t made it a part of the American story, then unless we’re very intentional today, it won’t be written into it.”

The aim, Howard says, isn’t as much to teach history as to celebrate it and learn from it.  “Our goal is not to just memorialize what happened—that’s important, obviously. But our goal is to illuminate the Juneteenth story and everything associated with it: emancipation, freedom, justice. It’s to tell the American story—and that’s still being written.”

Juneteenth’s Path to Recognition

On June 19th, 1865, Texas became the last state to adopt and acknowledge the freedom of enslaved Americans. One-hundred and fifteen years later, it became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. It would be more than a decade before any other US state did likewise.

Today, according to the Congressional Research Service, “all 50 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or observance, and at least 22 states and the District of Columbia have designated Juneteenth as a permanent paid and/or legal holiday through legislation or executive action.”

Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King’s birthday received that recognition.