ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For McTelvin Agim, the era of chattel slavery in America does not feel so long ago.
While his father emigrated to the country from Africa, Agim's mother's side of the family has extensive roots in America, dating back hundreds of years, including a great-great grandmother who was born into bondage.
"My grandmother's grandmother was born a slave," Agim says. "So my great-grandmother, she remembers the slavery times, she remembers everything. She remembers it all. Those are the stories that I've been able to hear from my aunt, who heard them from her. The stories are always passed down through the generations, and we're always being … taught about where we come from."
That sentiment feels particularly true for Agim around Juneteenth, a celebration of emancipation that grew from Texas roots into a national holiday. It marks the day when U.S. Major General Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas. In that order on June 19, 1865, Granger informed residents of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two years earlier, and in effect also informed Texans of the army's intent to enforce it in the state.
Ever since, June 19 has served as a celebration of liberation, particularly in Texas, but now also nationwide after it became a federal holiday in 2021.
For Agim and several other players on the Broncos' roster who grew up in the Lone Star State, the holiday is tied not only to the current moment but goes deep into their childhoods with memories of community bonding and as a reminder of what their ancestors endured.
At the Juneteenth celebrations in Texarkana, where Agim is from, there's an unmistakable family reunion vibe.
"One of the first things you see is old-school music, barbecues, the kids running around in the park, families playing," Agim says. "Older siblings and older family members, older relatives playing spades, dominoes, having a few drinks. Everybody's just enjoying themselves, enjoying the company of their family."
When he was younger, he thought that's all it was — a family reunion at his grandmother's house or the park.
"I didn't know the history of it, I didn't understand the meaning of it," Agim says. "I just knew it was a time where we could get together and have fun, be able to enjoy ourselves. …
"But when it was explained to me, it was that, us, as slaves, we were sold so many times we lost contact with a lot of our family. So when we were finally able to have our freedom, they reached out to those families and got together and then celebrated being able to be around each other. So when I found out the meaning of that, it just put Juneteenth and our family reunions in a whole different light for me."
That essence holds true for other Texans on the team, too.
"It's a big celebration for me and my family on both sides," P.J. Locke says. "We actually all come together and we always do some type of barbecue, just celebrate that type of holiday. Pretty much that holiday is all about family camaraderie. It's just an important day. You get to see family you haven't seen for a long time. We take that kind of thing serious around there from where I'm from."
In Hempstead, where rookie Delarrin Turner-Yell grew up, the celebration is expansive and includes events in the community along with individual family gatherings. There's a parade on Saturday every year, and a band plays at a local park. Some folks ride their horses. It's a relaxed, mingling atmosphere of camaraderie and love.
"Everyone just comes out and we really hang out from like the parade is probably over like around 10:30 [a.m.] and then we usually don't leave until 2:30 or 3 o'clock [p.m.], so we're out there all day," Turner-Yell says. "And then after that, we even go back home and still sit out in the yard and barbecue and just [have] family members over. Or even if it's just anyone that we're close to in the community, they'll come over and we'll just sit out, hang out all day."
The culinary aspect can be a central part of the celebration, and for Agim, it holds a resonant meaning.
"We will still cook the same meals that were given to us as slaves, like chitlins," Agim says. "We still love those things. Pecan pie, pecan ice cream. We love those things. Those are deeply [felt]. There was a pecan tree in my grandma's back yard. Those things are deeply rooted in our society. Being able to celebrate those things and being able to be with family, it's one of the best things ever."
In recent years, Juneteenth has become more widely recognized. Even prior to it becoming a federal holiday, several NFL teams (including the Broncos) and the NFL league office moved to observe it as a permanent holiday.
"I, growing up in Texas, thought it was something that celebrated by everybody, everywhere," Courtland Sutton says. "And then when I got a little bit older, I realized it wasn't celebrated everywhere. So to see it celebrated everywhere and everyone to learn that history and learning the significance of why we should have that holiday and why we should be celebrating it, it's cool."
The history of it, though, is more challenging than it appears.
"The story behind Juneteenth, it's when the slaves got that information, but it wasn't fully [brought about then] — the liberation part of it wasn't fully given until later on," Sutton says.
While Juneteenth is, in essence, celebrated like a national commemoration of emancipation, it's important to also recognize "how piecemeal emancipation was in the U.S.," as historian Curtis Harris wrote in a 2020 article.
"No one single day suffices as THE end of slavery in the country," Harris wrote. "There was no magic moment anywhere where the institution just suddenly died.
"It took consistent, hard work to bring about its end from enslaved people and an increasingly large alliance of others that culminated with the United States Army bringing the force of military arms to bear in the struggle."
Understanding that, it's important that Juneteenth be the impetus for more people to learn more about the history and understand the holiday in context of its place in a lengthy history of emancipation at federal, state and local levels across the country.
"I feel like it's a huge thing, just because the entire meaning of it, I would say, early on was kind of not really recognized," Turner-Yell says. "But here in the recent years, people have kind of brought it to light. So to see people celebrating it and actually understanding the meaning of it really means a lot."