On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
History of Juneteenth
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the enslavement of African people ended in states controlled by the Confederacy. It wasn’t until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865 that slavery was finally abolished in the United States. However, for many Black Americans, life remained the same. Enslaved people in border states were not freed, and for all practical purposes, neither were those in the Confederate states until the Union army entered.
Many enslaved Black Americans had no idea that President Lincoln had even signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In Texas, one of the last states to rely financially on enslaved human beings, more than two-and-a-half years passed before enslaved people received their freedom.
Juneteenth commemorates the date of June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to demand that enslaved people there be set free. Until that time, the Union army had not had sufficient strength to enforce the emancipation of the approximately 250,000 Black people enslaved in Texas, the most distant such state.1 When General Granger arrived, he read General Order No. 3 to Galveston residents:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
Following Granger’s announcement, the formerly enslaved Black Americans broke into celebration. Today, that celebration is said to be the oldest Black American holiday. The newly emancipated people celebrated their freedom and exercised their rights by buying land across Texas, namely Emancipation Park in Houston, Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, and Emancipation Park in Austin.
Past and Present Juneteenth Celebrations
The holiday celebrating Black independence could be seen spreading in its first years from one state to another as formerly enslaved people relocated across the country upon hearing of their long-awaited emancipation. There are many similarities between these early celebrations and celebrations of today.
The Spread of Juneteeth
In lieu of a formal celebration the first year enslaved people were freed, many of those emancipated fled plantations to the North and neighboring states to reunite with family, buy land, and settle down. In the next several years from 1866 on, formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants gathered together to pray, eat, dance, and hear each other’s stories on this historic day. Honoring their freedom was an act of resistance to white supremacy. Beginning in Texas, this day of celebration caught on throughout the south in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, and eventually Florida and California as well.
Celebrations of the Past
Historic Juneteenth celebrations included religious services, readings, inspirational speeches, stories from formerly enslaved people, games and contests, prayer services, rodeo events, baseball, singing, and, of course, feasting.
Music was an important part of the culture of enslaved people, and early celebrations of Juneteenth always included it. Afro-jazz, blues, and worship music were a critical part of these festivities, the hymn “Lift Every Voice” of particular significance. The Emancipation Proclamation was commonly read to kick off Juneteenth celebrations.
Clothing was a crucial aspect of these celebrations as well. For formerly enslaved people, making a distinction between their lives in captivity and their lives as free people was essential, and one way to do this was to wear bright and lively clothing, something they were not able to do when they had enslavers. Finally allowed to express themselves and dress how they pleased, Black Americans donned the colors of Africa and freedom in honor of their ancestors and their struggle for liberty—black, green, and red, the colors of the Pan-African flag, grew common, as did red, white, and blue, the colors of the American flag as well as the Juneteenth flag.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated in much the same way that it was when it first began—with music festivals, performances, rodeos, barbecues, pageants, and more. Red food and drink are common as an homage to African narratives and West African traditions. This color is said to represent strength and spirituality and carries great weight in many aspects of West African culture.
Celebrations of Juneteenth are not unlike those of the Fourth of July, with parades and street fairs, dancing and music, picnics and cookouts, family reunions, and historical reenactments. Strawberry soda or red soda water and barbecuing became symbols of Juneteenth, with barbecue pits often positioned in the center of large gatherings. The Juneteenth flag is more prominent than ever.
Why Juneteenth Almost Faded Out
While many Black Americans celebrate Juneteenth today, the popularity of the holiday waned during periods of the past, specifically World War II, and there were many years when it was not celebrated at all.
Juneteenth lost momentum during the eras of Jim Crow following emancipation and was not widely celebrated when the United States was involved in World War II in the 1940s, either. Despite being “free,” it still wasn’t safe to be Black in the United States. After emancipation, White Americans retaliated by terrorizing newly freed Black Americans. Despite widespread lynchings and the emergence of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, Congress never passed a federal anti-lynching law. The wording of the 13th Amendment was used to create a new means of racialized mass incarceration through the Prison-Industrial Complex.
The holiday was resurrected in 1950, but from then until the civil rights movements of the 1960s, few Black Americans openly observed Juneteenth. That has changed in the early 21st century. Today, Juneteenth is not only a well-celebrated holiday, but there is a strong movement to have the 19th of June become a National Day of Recognition for enslavement.
The Path Toward a National Day of Recognition
According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr., founder and chairman of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, asked President Barack Obama during his presidency to “issue a presidential proclamation to establish Juneteenth Independence Day as a National Day of Observance in America, similar to Flag Day or Patriot Day.” He asked the same of President Donald Trump.
Both Obama and Trump issued Statements of Observance of Juneteeth—Obama in 2016 and Trump in 2019—and presidents before them also honored this holiday. In 2000, President Bill Clinton made remarks on it at a voter registration project in Texas and President George W. Bush delivered a Message on the Observance of Juneteenth in 2008. But it was not until June 17, 2021 that Juneteenth became an officially recognized Federal Holiday, when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law2.
Prior to that date, 47 states and the District of Columbia commemorated or observed Juneteenth.3 Only North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii did not. Even private and public corporations had taken steps toward recognizing this holiday on a larger scale.
In 2020, shaken by a wave of extended protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, companies such as Nike and Twitter made Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employees.
Statement by President Biden
On June 17, 2021, when President Biden signed the bill into law, he made the following remarks:4
“…we must understand that Juneteenth represents not only the commemoration of the end of slavery in America more than 150 years ago, but the ongoing work to have to bring true equity and racial justice into American society, which we can do.
“In short, this day doesn’t just celebrate the past; it calls for action today.”