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The History of Juneteenth and How it’s Celebrated

Juneteenth—which is short for June Nineteenth—is a federal holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Although nationwide celebrations of Juneteenth (also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day) are fairly new, Galveston, Texas, and various parts of the United States have celebrated this day of independence since its foundation in 1865.

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law officially recognizing Juneteenth as a federally observed holiday. The last holiday to be federally recognized was in 1983: the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

History of Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but the proclamation declared that only slaves within the rebellious states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina—would be freed. This meant that slavery was still legal in Tennessee, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and areas of Virginia and Louisiana.

It wasn’t until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War that 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, and discovered that news of the Emancipation Proclamation had not reached Galveston and that people were still being held as slaves in Texas. It was then that the army announced freedom for the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people, and thus became known as Juneteenth.

Juneteenth in Modern-Day America

Juneteenth has been celebrated in Texas and various parts of the United States for over 150 years, but many Americans are unfamiliar with the holiday. While the African American community largely acknowledges this day as the country’s second Independence Day, nationwide recognition and celebration have endured difficulties as racism, segregation, and discrimination became rampant issues following the slave emancipation.

During the 20th century, the Jim Crow Era stifled Juneteenth celebrations as African Americans were disenfranchised and legally considered second-class status. Additionally, events such as The Great Depression, World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement all resulted in declined acknowledgment of Juneteenth.

However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Juneteenth entered a revival period with large-scale celebrations taking place in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Housing, and Houston. The revival was so successful that on January 1, 1980, Texas Legislature deemed Juneteenth significant enough to declare it as a state holiday.

In the 1980s, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. began holding major Juneteenth celebrations, and over the next two decades, all states but South Dakota officially recognized Juneteenth as a holiday.

How is Juneteenth Celebrated

Since African Americans were previously prohibited from using public facilities, early Juneteenth celebrations were held in churches or outdoors. Celebrations consisted of elaborate meals and people wearing their best clothes.

Modern celebrations include picnics, street fairs, cookouts, and park parties, with traditional aspects such as singing songs and reading works from African American writers. Celebrations also include an emphasis on African American culture and heritage while recognizing emerging leaders in the community.

Now that Juneteenth is a federally recognized holiday, beginning in 2022 it became a legal state-paid holiday.

For more ways to celebrate Juneteenth, please check out How to Celebrate Juneteenth.

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