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A key American historical event has finally gotten federal recognition: June 19, 1865—the day all people living in the United States, including the formerly enslaved, were officially granted freedom. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law making the day known as Juneteenth a national holiday.
"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments. They don't ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them," Biden said at the White House signing. "Great nations don't walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger."
Many of us in the United States have grown up with the idea that the Fourth of July is about as American as you can get. People come out in droves to celebrate the holiday, which honors the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, with festive cookouts, fireworks, and a smattering of red, white, and blue desserts.
The national observance of Juneteenth provides a fuller, and more accurate, portrait of America's history beyond July 4th's celebrations. One-third of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders, including founding father Thomas Jefferson. The famous document did initially have a passage that denounced slavery, but it was removed in part to please the South, which relied heavily on the slave trade. And one year later in 1777, with the publication of The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the enslaved were legally considered property as opposed to human beings, with the debate regarding whether or not Africans were considered "other persons" or property continuing for decades to come.
As such, July 4th was founded on an idea of freedom created by a group of men who either believed they rightfully owned Black people, or were not willing to stand up to the atrocities of slavery in the United States. And, as former First Lady Michelle Obama reminded us in her powerful 2016 DNC speech, it was the enslaved who built the White House—a residence that not only represents the presidency, but American democracy and freedom. Not recognizing Juneteenth erased these historical facts, glossing over the racist ideas and policies that were integral to founding our nation.
In 2020, in light of the national resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement amidst the police killings of Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, the holiday took on an even bigger meaning. Americans—many for the first time—were seeking to honor Black lives lost in any way that they could in order to honor and acknowledge the historical struggles of the community.
“The stakes are a little different,” Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University African American studies professor told The New York Times in June 2020. “Many African Africans, Black Americans, feel as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard in a way across the culture... It’s an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen."
Below, the history and important facts about Juneteenth, the now-successful case for making it a national holiday, and how it's is traditionally celebrated.
What exactly is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, takes place annually on June 19. The holiday is a combination of the words "June" and "nineteenth."
On January 1, 1863, ahead of the third year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—were free. But Lincoln's executive order did not fully abolish slavery in the U.S., as it didn't apply to those held as property in bordering states who were loyal to the Union.
Despite the proclamation, in Texas, slavery was largely unaffected. The confederates considered the state a safe space for slaveholders, as it remained generally unoccupied by Union Army soldiers during the war—mainly because it was one of the furthest away from the border between the Union and the Confederacy, a.k.a, the frontlines of the Civil War. According to PBS, many rebels from neighboring states would flee to Texas with their (illegal) enslaved people.
But on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and just two months after confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, with the Union Army winning the war, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to take control. He issued General Order No. 3 to inform enslaved people that they were free and that the Civil War was officially over. This is why we celebrate Juneteenth, because it honors the day all of the enslaved were made aware of the Emancipation Proclamation and were officially legally released from their bonds.
Later that same year, in December 1865, the ratification of the 13th amendment formally abolished slavery in the United States. It read:
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Juneteenth is a national holiday.
It's the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established back in 1983. Further, it arrives at a time when multiple states are passing laws limiting what can be taught about race and American slavery in schools. Ironically, Texas—the first state to lead the charge in naming Juneteenth a formal state holiday in January 1980—is among the states in which lawmakers have introduced multiple measures intended to limit how, and what, teachers can say about the history of slavery in the U.S. It was only in 2018 that the Texas Board of Education finally voted to acknowledge in school curriculum that slavery was "a main cause" of the Civil War.
Prior to the new law signed by Biden, Washington, D.C. and 48 states had passed legislation to recognize Juneteenth, though only a few states made it a paid holiday where all workers are given the day off, like July 4. In 2021, per a June 17 tweet from the U.S. Office of Personal Management (OPM), "As the 19th falls on a Saturday, most federal employees will observe the holiday tomorrow, June 18th."
In the wake of global fights for recognition and equality with the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, both Virginia and New York declared Emancipation Day an observed state paid holiday. Corporations like Target, Nike, Twitter, the NFL, and Hearst Magazines (which publishes Oprah Daily and O Quarterly) have also declared June 19 a company holiday.
Hawaii became the 49th state to formally recognize the day on June 16, 2021—the same day Congress voted to approve it as a national holiday.
Opal Lee, a longtime activist and advocate for Juneteenth to become a national holiday is one of the leaders of the effort, with her Change.org petition for the cause gaining over 1.5 million signatures.
In February 2021, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was reintroduced by lawmakers in the House and Senate, following in the footsteps of Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee who introduced a resolution for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday, gaining 200 co-sponsors in 2020 according to Time. 2021's efforts were led by Sen. Edward Markey.
"For too long, we have tried to whitewash our nation's history instead of confronting the uncomfortable and painful truth," he said in a statement to CNN. "This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future."
South Dakota is the only state that never legally recognized Juneteenth.
Only time will tell whether history will remember South Dakota as the only state that never recognized the celebration as a state holiday or day of observance. After repeated efforts, the South Dakota Senate passed a bill to make Juneteenth a working holiday, but in March 2021 it was blocked in the House by a vote of 31-36.
Here's what the Juneteenth flag colors represent.
The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF), founded in 1994, recognizes the same colors found in the U.S. flag: red, white, and blue, showing that the formerly enslaved were and are Americans. They also created an official flag for the holiday in 1997, which features red and blue stripe sections separated by an arc that signifies new horizons and opportunity. In the middle is a large white "star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land," according to the NJOF site.
The prominent star both represents Texas as the Lone Star state and symbolizes the freedom of all African Americans in the 50 states. In 2007, the significant date "June 19, 1865" was added to the flag.
But despite these being the formal colors of the holiday, you'll also see people honoring Black Independence Day with red, black, and green. These are the colors of the Pan-African flag, which was created in 1920 and encouraged by leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. This flag honors people of African Diaspora and also symbolizes Black liberation and freedom.
How can you celebrate or recognize Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is celebrated across the country amongst Black families and friends with street fairs, parades, and concerts. (The most jubilant annual celebrations take place in its Texas birthplace.) Because of the holiday's Southern roots, barbecue is a must, and red foods like strawberry soda and red velvet cake are traditionally served as the color is "a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage," according to The New York Times. NJOF president Steve Williams also encouraged readings of the Emancipation Proclamation in USA Today.
And for anyone who isn't Black but would like to recognize Juneteenth, every year, June 19 is a great day to honor and embrace Black culture through its art and history. You might want to take the opportunity to learn about major firsts from African Americans, read a book by a Black author, catch a film that honors Black life, or support Black-owned companies. But most importantly, remember that all of those things shouldn't just happen on Juneteenth, but every day. Because it's never a bad time to celebrate the independence of everyone in our country.
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