Juneteenth is the newest federal holiday. Here's what it celebrates.

Observed on June 19, the holiday commemorates the end of slavery in Texas—which wasn't until two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Published 18 Jun 2021, 14:18 BST
Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of enslaved people at the end of the U.S. Civil War, as depicted here by illustrator Thomas Nast. Long observed by African American communities, it is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated in 1983.
Photograph by Illustration by World History Archive, Alamy

The United States has a new federal holiday. On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that officially designates Juneteenth—observed each year on June 19—as an American holiday. As the holiday falls on a Saturday this year, federal workers will have the day off on June 18.

Known to some as the country’s “second Independence Day,” Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of enslaved people in the United States at the end of the Civil War. For more than 150 years, African American communities across the country have observed this holiday. (Here’s why Juneteenth is a celebration of hope.)

Juneteenth has gained awareness in recent years as activists have pushed for state and federal recognition. With the signing of this bill, those efforts will finally come to fruition as Juneteenth becomes the first new federal holiday since the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

So what’s the story behind Juneteenth? Here’s a look at the history of the holiday and how it has been celebrated through the years.

Freedom after the Confederacy

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect and declared enslaved people in the Confederacy free—on the condition that the Union won the war. The proclamation turned the war into a fight for freedom and by the end of the war 200,000 Black soldiers had joined the fight, spreading news of freedom as they fought their way through the South. (Read about the history of Juneteenth with your kids.)

Union leader Gordon Granger told the 250,000 enslaved people of Texas that they were free.
Photograph by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Civil War Photographs

Since Texas was one of the last strongholds of the South, emancipation would be a long-time coming for enslaved people in the state. Even after the last battle of the Civil War was fought in 1865—a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed—it is believed that many enslaved people still did not know they were free. As the story goes, some 250,000 enslaved people only learned of their freedom after Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and announced that the president had issued a proclamation freeing them. 

On that day, Granger declared, “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 labour.”

A celebratory day

With Granger’s announcement, June 19—which would eventually come to be known as Juneteenth—became a day to celebrate the end of slavery in Texas. As newly freed Texans began moving to neighbouring states, Juneteenth celebrations spread across the South and beyond.

Early Juneteenth celebrations included church services, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and social events like rodeos and dances. (Learn how to cook Juneteenth cookies.)

For decades, many southern Black communities were forced to celebrate Juneteenth on the outskirts of town due to racism and Jim Crow laws. To ensure they had a safe place to gather, Juneteenth groups would often collectively purchase plots of land in the city on which to celebrate. These parks were commonly named Emancipation Parks, many of which still exist today.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the ‘60s, Juneteenth celebrations faded. In recent years, however, Juneteenth has regained popularity and is often celebrated with food and community. It also has helped raise awareness about ongoing issues facing the African-American community, including a political fight for reparations, or compensation, to the descendants of victims of slavery.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognise June 19 as a state holiday, which it did with legislation. Today, Juneteenth is recognised by nearly every state, and in June 2021, the U.S. Congress has passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Other emancipation celebrations

Despite the holiday’s resurgence in popularity, Juneteenth is still not universally known and is often confused with Emancipation Day, which is annually celebrated on April 16.

Just as Juneteenth originally celebrated freedom in Texas, Emancipation Day specifically marks the day when President Lincoln freed some 3,000 enslaved people in Washington, D.C.—a full eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation and nearly three years before those in Texas would be freed.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the status of the bill to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

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