What Is Juneteenth in the US?

06:20 June 18, 2024

What Is Juneteenth in the US?

Today is Juneteenth in the United States.

The holiday is over 150 years old but it is still unknown to many people. It marks the end of official slavery in the country and celebrates the promise of freedom.

The word “Juneteenth” combines the month “June” with the number 19. It recalls June 19, 1865, the day troops from the Union side of the American Civil War arrived in the city of Galveston, Texas.

At that time, Texas was part of the Confederate States of America, the group of Southern states fighting the Union for the right to keep slaves. The 250,000 enslaved people in Texas did not know that the president at the time -- Abraham Lincoln -- had declared them legally free.

In fact, Lincoln had declared them legally free more than two years earlier – on January 1, 1863.

But Texas was in the far west of the country and removed from much of the fighting. Few Union soldiers were there to communicate or enforce Lincoln’s order. Confederate slaveholders did not agree with it. They did not want to lose the labor they got for free.

So, no one told the enslaved people -- until June 19, when a Union general and a few thousand soldiers arrived to take control of the area. The general quickly read an announcement. He informed the people that the Union had won the Civil War and that “all slaves are free.”

Many formerly enslaved people immediately began to celebrate. As soon as they could, some left Texas and joined family members in other states. Some remained and built new lives.

They remembered June 19 in the years that followed. In time, their children and grandchildren celebrated it as a holiday, too.

What happens on Juneteenth?

Historically, Juneteenth has involved cooking and eating outdoors, listening to music, saying prayers and wearing nice clothes.

Betty Anderson, who is a descendant of enslaved people, spoke to The Federalist magazine about her Juneteenth traditions. She said the day includes stories about people who continued to fight for equal rights because “freedom from slavery did not bring freedom for the African-American.”

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. made a similar point in the online magazine The Root. He said one of the important things about Juneteenth is that it is a positive, powerful celebration, even in the face of discrimination.

For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Texas officials refused to permit black people to gather in public spaces. So, black families and friends celebrated Juneteenth near rivers and lakes, Gates said. In time, they bought their own parks where they could celebrate.

Becoming a national holiday

During the country’s Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some Black Americans and activists embraced Juneteenth as a way to connect them to Black history.

Texas became the first state to declare the day an official state holiday in 1980.

In June 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth as the country’s newest national holiday. Biden said it was a day to “remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country.” He added, “But it is a day that also reminds us of our incredible capacity to heal, hope, and emerge from our darkest moments with purpose and resolve.”

Last year, at least 28 American states and the city government of Washington, D.C. recognized Juneteenth as a public holiday, a Pew Research Center study said.

On the history of Juneteenth, the National Museum of African American History & Culture wrote that although the event remains largely unknown to most Americans, it is considered the “country’s second independence day” by Black Americans.

“The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times,” it said.

I’m Caty Weaver.

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