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The Long History of Juneteenth

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2020 celebrates the 155th year of Juneteenth. To many, June 19th may seem like another day on the calendar. The reality of the holiday is that it’s the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It’s a day that represents the fact that despite the ratification of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, not everyone was truly free.

What is Juneteenth?

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freed men are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

That was the announcement–General Order Number 3–Major General Gordon Granger gave when he arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. 

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, and over 500,000 enslaved Black people were to be set free. But due to the lack of Union soldiers in Texas, there was nobody to enforce the Executive Order and many slave owners kept their slaves captive. It took nearly two and a half years for the news to reach Texas nearly after the Emancipation Proclamation. Not all enslaved people were freed immediately, including 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas alone. It wasn’t until the moment when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April of 1865 that the Union forces became stronger and were able to influence those who resisted. 

June 19, 1865, is a date symbolic of African-American freedom in the United States and is continued to be celebrated by Black Americans in communities across the country.

How is Juneteenth Celebrated?  

As historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, for former slaves to turn the historic moment and take ownership of the holiday–including the name Juneteenth–was revolutionary.

Texans began celebrating the following year in 1866. The celebrations began to stem from Texas as families moved to other areas in the country, carrying on the tradition to honor the holiday. In Houston, Texas, a community of Black ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in 1872 and named it Emancipation Park to honor the historic occasion for Black people in this country. It wasn’t until January of 1980 that it became an official state holiday in Texas. 

Galveston, the site of the holiday’s origin, to this day hosts one of the largest celebrations annually on June 19th. Each year, there’s a commemorative reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by a prayer breakfast at Ashton Villa, a historic home built in the city in 1859. 

Communities across the country celebrate by hosting events like parades, festivals, storytelling, picnics, prayer gatherings, cultural readings, barbecues, and musical performances. At the barbecues, red drinks and foods are traditionally served, as red symbolizes resilience and is often revered as a symbol for strength, spirituality, life, and death in West African cultures.  

Beyond the celebrations and symbolic food, fashion is integral to the celebration. Before slaves were freed, slave owners provided clothing for them and were able to dictate what was worn. Much like taking the celebration into their own hands became revolutionary, so was expressing themselves through their clothing. To this day, your clothing choices play a big role in Juneteenth celebrations. For some, that may include nice outfits, a nod to a law that stated slaves couldn’t wear fancy clothes. For others, red, white, and blue are worn to honor the fact that it is widely considered “Independence Day” for the Black community.

Black, green, and red are also worn to honor the Pan-African flag, inspired by Marcus Garvey to represent Black nationalism. In some parades, people will dress in traditional garb to honor their culture and ancestors through their fashion choices in addition to the music and means of celebration. There’s no right or wrong way to dress for the celebration–it’s all about showcasing everyone’s unique self-expression.  

After the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Juneteenth saw a revival and gained momentum once again to continue to commemorate the important day in African-American history a century after it started. Today, Juneteenth continues to celebrate African-American achievements, freedom, and culture, with its roots forever tied back in Texas. 

Why is Juneteenth Not a Federal Holiday?

While all but three states–including Hawaii, South Dakota, and North Dakota–have passed legislation that observes Juneteenth as a state holiday, it is not recognized as a federal holiday. A resolution was passed in 2018 by the Senate to recognize the day as “Juneteenth Independence Day” but the House has not approved it yet.

With the ongoing protests and fight against systemic racism receiving ongoing attention globally, Americans are petitioning to make Juneteenth a nationally celebrated holiday. Some companies like Nike, Twitter, and the NFL have given their employees off in response to the protests, and businesses across the countries are taking a closer look at their policies. 

As Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, told Teen Vogue, “I think the significance and purpose of recognizing Juneteenth is something that all citizens should acknowledge because, if there is not a retelling or remembrance of the true history in this nation, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

Despite celebration July 4thin honor of America declaring independence from England at a time when slaves weren’t perceived as humans, June 19th is not revered as a national holiday. While it celebrates liberation, Juneteenth also represents how systemic oppression has been continuously delaying the freedom of Black people in the country thought to be free.

  • Since the original release of this article, Juneteenth has since become a Federal Holiday. 


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