This Saturday, June 19, is Juneteenth—a holiday that celebrates the end of legal slavery in the United States. Last year it coincided with an unprecedented national protest demanding accountability for the police killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the broadest recognition of Juneteenth in at least 100 years. Thanks to public pressure, major companies like Nike, Target, and social media giants gave employees a paid holiday, while movies and TV shows shifted their premieres off the day.
This year’s Juneteenth will be different than any before it—this week the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to make it a federal holiday. But that move comes even as lawmakers in several states pass laws that make it harder to include antiracist curricula in schools. Many thought leaders have also pointed out that this does not necessarily mean that Black and brown communities will be afforded a paid day off.
National recognition of Juneteenth should make the history of American slavery—and the preciousness of freedom—undeniable. But antiracist activists warn that without a conscious effort to understand and teach the impact of slavery, Juneteenth will become like most other federal holidays: just another big day for mattress sales.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth—also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day—falls on June 19 to commemorate the end of legal slavery in the United States. It honors the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which, legally, liberated them.
“I think Juneteenth is an even more quintessentially American holiday than the Fourth of July,” Shennette Garrett-Scott, associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, explains. “It is about the sweetness of freedom, but also the bitter fight to possess it.”
Juneteenth is the closest thing America has to a day of recognition that acknowledges the nearly 250 years of legal human bondage that define our country’s history. Originally celebrated primarily in Texas and nearby states, Juneteenth is one of several regional emancipation holidays, but it has become the most widely celebrated in recent years.
“I think that in many ways the vast majority of Americans are only beginning to reckon with the complexity and the horror of the history of slavery in the United States,” says Erica Ball, Black studies department chair at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Most Americans have learned about the history of slavery from the movies. Until very recently, most mainstream Hollywood movies privileged a representation of slavery that makes it seem as if it was a gentle, kind, and benign institution. So commemorating it, kind of reckoning with it, is something that I think, in its horror, that Americans are only beginning to get used to thinking about.”
But to really celebrate the end of slavery, America would have to acknowledge that we had slavery in the first place. Twelve American presidents owned enslaved people. The White House, the Smithsonian, and Harvard Law School were built with slave labor. When slavery was finally abolished, the U.S. government gave compensation to many slavers for the lost “property,” but enslaved people and their descendants never got reparations.
Juneteenth isn’t a day of mourning or atonement for the institution of slavery (though we should have a day devoted to those things). It’s a liberation celebration. A day of music, parades, cookouts, education, parties, and memorials, an opportunity to exult in Black lives, Black history, and Black culture.
Awareness of the holiday outside the South has been raised by shows like Black-ish, Atlanta, and BlackAF, each of which have aired popular Juneteenth episodes. Filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples’s mother-daughter drama, Miss Juneteenth, was released last year on the holiday.
Have you never celebrated the legal end of your country’s greatest and most unforgivable sin? This year is as good a time as any to start. Throw support to Black-owned businesses, and make a sincere commitment to dismantling racism in your workplace, local institutions, and your own behavior.
Why is this Juneteenth different?
Despite the unprecedented recognition of Junteenth, antiracist activists warn that this is no time for complacency or self-congratulation around racism. Even as Juneteenth celebrations gain momentum, a conservative movement has emerged to limit and punish teachers for teaching “critical race theory” in schools—basically, trying to keep teachers from explaining how racism has been part of America’s history.
This week Texas passed a law that makes it illegal to teach that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality,” among other things. Instead of taking national accountability for the way that slavery shaped America, lawmakers are working to rewrite history and whitewash our national memory.
What is the story of Juneteenth?
In 1619, one year before the Mayflower landed, the first enslaved African were forced onto American soil. For nearly 250 years, the British colonies—which then became the United States—continued the institution of allowing citizens to force kidnapped Africans and their descendants to labor unpaid.
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing enslaved people in Confederate states.
But some enslaved people in the farther reaches of the region had no way of knowing that they had been freed by the proclamation. Some of them didn’t even know the Civil War was over. In Texas, then a frontier state in which many slavers forcibly moved their enslaved people to hide them from the advancing Union army, slavery continued despite the fact that it was both immoral and illegal. “African Americans probably knew or had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, but there really wasn’t anything they could do about it,” Garrett-Scott, the University of Mississippi professor, says. “They were surrounded; they dared not assert their freedom.”
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger rode into Galveston and announced to the enslaved people that the war was over. “In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States,” he told the waiting crowd, “all slaves are free.”
“I imagine right there under the balcony where General Granger made the announcement, people whooped and hollered and celebrated and went back and told their family and friends that they were free,” Garrett-Scott says. “The next year around that time many African Americans in their own communities marked their freedom on that day, and that celebration has continued continuously up until the present.” Juneteenth was celebrated widely by communities in and around Texas in the 19th century, flagged in popularity in the 20th century, and has become a more broadly celebrated holiday in the United States as well as Africa and Europe since the 1970s.
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
“I’ve seen how the constant reference to slavery as the main event of Black history during units in school, for example, can be extremely damaging to the mental and emotional placement of young Black people in America,” says Anya Dillard, a 17-year-old high school student in West Orange, New Jersey. “They grow up learning that the significance that their ancestors had was solely based on their suffering and humiliation, and that is not the case. There is so much more to the history that you and your ancestors have acquired over the years.”
Dillard, who started a nonprofit, The Next Gen Come Up, to organize against police brutality and other important issues, helped plan a community Juneteenth celebration in her town. “It’s not just for Black students,” she says. “We’re including everybody. We wanted everyone to understand the real value that Black culture has.”
Music, food, dancing, parades, and speeches are standard at Juneteenth celebrations, but the constraints of the pandemic have seen many major Juneteenth events go virtual. There are virtual cookouts, virtual book groups, Juneteenth-themed face masks, and a full weekend of virtual festivals.
Mariah Williams, a 21-year-old living in Southern California, didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth, but her family acknowledged the holiday, and she never felt connected to Fourth of July. “My dad has always said, ‘Independence Day for whom exactly? Because you and me would have still been in chains in the 1700s,’” she says. “I definitely want to see more Black Americans embracing Juneteenth as our true Independence Day, and I want to see all American citizens accept Juneteenth as a part of this country’s history.”
“We can celebrate everything that we love about America without missing the opportunity to point out that it’s bittersweet,” says Garrett-Scott. “Juneteenth commemorates the waiting and the longing of those enslaved people in Texas, which resonates with today—there is a way to celebrate the greatness of this country and not neglect to highlight how far we still have to go.”
Since the ’70s, Garrett-Scott says, Juneteenth celebrations have spread outside the South to the rest of the U.S., and even internationally, through art and music festivals and parades: “They were never exclusively Black—they were always really inclusive, and wanted people from all ethnicities and races to come and celebrate this moment and also the wonderfulness of Black culture.”
Juneteenth isn’t the only historic day that has ever commemorated the end of slavery—there’s Watch Night and Emancipation Proclamation Day—but it’s one that has gained momentum. “Juneteenth really highlights the perspective of the folks who got the news, the folks who were the last to know,” Ball says. The African Americans of Galveston were not the only group of enslaved people who waited for freedom even longer than they should have, but their predicament captures the painful poignancy of going from enslavement to liberation. “Celebrating Juneteenth privileges that perspective and it captures the joy,” Ball says. “And it becomes a community celebration. It becomes something that people can put together with friends, family, and community, as opposed to a message that’s delivered from on high, and that’s what a good celebration is ultimately.”
On June 19 we’ll remember those people in Galveston, hearing the sound of Union horses arriving, waiting for true, complete freedom. Over 150 years have passed, and Black Americans are still waiting for the real freedom that comes from being safe from police brutality and systemic racism.
As the novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in his posthumous novel, “There’ve been a heap of Juneteenths gone by and there’ll be a heap more before we’re free.”
Echoing him, Dillard, the 17-year-old organizer from New Jersey, says, “I’ve grown up in a generation that has seen America’s first Black president, but I’ve also grown up in a generation that has seen people who look like our brothers and our best friends get gunned down in the street.” In other words, the work is far from finished.
“We want to not only celebrate the victories and the progress that we’ve been making in our Black Lives Matter movement,” Dillard says, “but also to just come together and recognize the importance that this particular moment in history has for every group of people.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour