Despite its long history, Juneteenth has been mostly ignored by non-Black Americans until recently.
Juneteenth was thrust into the national spotlight by the Black Lives Matter movement, which built on a decades-long campaign by activists and leaders to gain recognition for the historic event. Last year, Juneteenth became the United States’ newest federal holiday, the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Many public and private sector employees benefit from an extra day off now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, while brands and corporations capitalize on the occasion with celebratory marketing efforts. But Juneteenth is about much more than a long weekend and branded merchandise.
It’s worth reflecting on the history of the holiday as Black Americans continue to face the same difficulties and unfairness that prompted so many to take to the streets in 2020.
What is the significance of June 13th?
The end of slavery in the United States is commemorated on Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day.
It commemorates the day that Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3, declaring the enslaved African Americans there free.
The edict stated, “The people of Texas are advised that, pursuant to a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” “This entails perfect equality of personal and property rights between former owners and slaves, and the previously existing connection between them becomes that of employer and hired labor.”
The enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, gained their freedom two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which could not be executed in Confederate-controlled territory. It also occurred two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, an event widely regarded as the Civil War’s end.
How Is June 13th Celebrated?
As African Americans in Texas moved to other parts of the country, what began as an informal celebration of freedom by people in Galveston developed into a larger commemoration of the end of slavery. Many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth today with celebrations, parades, and get-togethers with family and friends.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth as a state holiday. In addition to being a federal holiday, Juneteenth is commemorated in some way in all 50 states and Washington, DC.
As Juneteenth becomes more widely recognized, some activists and leaders point to systemic inequities that Black Americans continue to suffer, such as the racial income gap, disproportionate incarceration, and long-standing health disparities. One group of civil and human rights organizations, in particular, is marking the occasion by erecting a pan-African flag in front of the White House and pushing for a commission to investigate reparations.
Observing Juneteenth might then be an occasion to reflect on how far the country has come — and how much further there is to go, as many of those asking for widespread changes say.