Do You Know The History And Importance Of Juneteenth?

Every year near the start of summer, people around the country celebrate Juneteenth. The holiday is far from new—and it commemorates an event that happened more than 155 years ago—but awareness and interest in Juneteenth has steadily increased over the years.

With that awareness and interest comes an opportunity to learn more about the past and present of Black life in America. Here’s the important history behind June 19, as well as how it’s commonly celebrated.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, which is when enslaved Black people in Texas were told that slavery had been abolished. They were informed more than two years after they were freed under President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation freed enslaved people in Confederate states—including Texas. Still, this wasn’t the end of slavery across the US. Enslaved people in states like Kentucky and Delaware weren’t freed until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865, thereby making slavery unconstitutional.

Learn about the recent updates the Dictionary has made to keep up with evolving language and how we talk about people, including updating references to enslaved people.

For people in the Confederate states, however, the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. Still, enslavers in Texas and other parts of the South kept the proclamation from enslaved people. By the time enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told by Union Major General Gordon Granger that they were free on June 19, 1865, they were some of the last enslaved people to be informed. It had been two months since the Civil War ended.

That day in history is commemorated every year on Juneteenth. The word is a blended shortening of June 19th. The first recorded use of the name goes back to 1890 when a local Galveston newspaper wrote about a celebration, though gatherings were happening years before. Today, the official name is Juneteenth Independence Day. You may also hear names like Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Black Independence Day.

Interested in learning more? Find additional facts and details about Juneteenth here.

Why Juneteenth is so important

For more than 150 years, Juneteenth has primarily been celebrated in the Black community. The day is in many ways a celebration as well as a time for recollection and reflection. Many people outside of the Black community haven’t historically noted the date, in part because many schools, especially those outside of Texas, didn’t cover the topic.

Awareness about Juneteenth and its importance to the Black community and the entirety of the US continues to grow. It’s a time to reflect on the country’s history of racism and oppression, as well as promote Black history and culture. After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020—the year of the 155th Juneteenth anniversary—large corporations started to officially recognize the date and offered paid time off and public statements. It was a long time coming. Juneteenth events recognize the emancipation of not just the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, but also the 4 million enslaved people in the United States at that time.

On June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday if passed by the House of Representatives and signed by President Joe Biden, as noted by this tweet from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. With Biden’s signature, Juneteenth officially became a federal legal public holiday. In observance of the holiday, most federal employees were given June 18 off work (as Juneteenth fell on a Saturday in 2021).

How is Juneteenth observed?

The events of June 19, 1865, are central to how Juneteenth is observed. Many formerly enslaved people moved North for freedom and opportunities, and celebrations were held as early as the following year to mark the date.

Modern celebrations are held in cities like Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Charleston, and Memphis. These feature guest speakers, educational events, singing and dancing, and prayer. Observances are similar to America’s other Independence Day on July 4 with cookouts and festivities, along with discussions on history and race.

There are common themes in Juneteenth celebrations across the US. Rodeos and baseball are popular activities along with the educational and prayer aspects on the day. Parades are often held in cities and towns that officially observe Juneteenth, as well.

Red is an especially important color, as it represents bloodshed and is connected to West Africa, where many enslaved people were taken from. You’ll see red in the food, like red velvet cake, red beans and rice, and cherry pie. Red drinks are important as well, like strawberry soda. Other common dishes that are served at Juneteenth celebrations are communal soul food dishes like black-eyed peas, collard greens, barbecue, and chicken.

Some will make an annual pilgrimage for Juneteenth to Galveston, Texas. Texas was the first to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday on January 1,1980, and today all but three states—Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota—recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or observance.

As Juneteenth celebrations become more prevalent, it’s necessary to remember why the date is an important part of American history.

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Black history in America includes many events that we should remember, including the The Tulsa Massacre in 1921. Learn about it here.