Juneteenth: The History of the Holiday and What it Means Today

June 19th is known as “Juneteenth” in the U.S. It’s a holiday that commemorates the day when the last slaves of the Confederacy were finally told they were free. The holiday is gaining renewed attention this year following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmed Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and countless other unarmed African Americans. Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations are using the holiday to highlight important issues in the black community, including police brutality, criminal justice, and health inequalities.

Discover the amazing history behind this holiday and its place in American culture.

The History of Juneteenth

At the height of the American Civil War, September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued what’s known as the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that effectively outlawed slavery in the country. The order said that all enslaved people within the Confederacy “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It was meant to go into effect on January 1st of 1863, but the order didn’t reach certain parts of the country until years later.

The Civil War raged on for another two and a half years, and many southern states were still engaged in slavery at the time. Union army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865 to inform all enslaved peoples that they were now free. Texas was extremely remote and rural back in the day, and Union troops were few and far in between, making the Emancipation Proclamation difficult to enforce.

Many people like to believe that June 19, 1865 was the day slavery ended in the U.S., but it continued in two border Union states for several months. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was added to the Constitution on December 6th, 1865, officially banned slavery throughout all U.S. territories.

Despite having gained their freedom, emancipated African Americans were still subjected to violence, brutality, and discrimination. Securing land, raising a family, and building a better life was often a challenge in the face of white supremacy. Black people began celebrating Juneteenth as a way of honoring their freedom. Children who were born free often gathered around their elders on June 19th to hear stories of what life was like in slavery.

What It Means Today

For many years, Juneteenth was seen as a regional holiday in Texas. Slavery had already been abolished in most of the country, so its prominence didn’t reach the national level. The holiday hasn’t been included in major U.S. history textbooks for some time, so it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

America doesn’t always hold a good track record when it comes to talking about the history of slavery. Some of us tend to gloss over this dark time in our nation’s past, choosing to focus on more positive leaders like Abraham Lincoln, instead of the widespread violence and suffering.  However, it’s gained momentum in recent years as the African American community continues to spread its legacy.

For this year’s Juneteenth, police brutality and systemic racism are front and center. Racial discrimination continues to this day. African Americans are still subjected to violence from authorities, discriminatory lending practices, and limited access to quality healthcare.

Many are now calling for Juneteenth to be declared a national holiday; people can use the day to commemorate emancipation and learn about the history of slavery and racial discrimination in this country. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently made Juneteenth a holiday for all state employees. Many colleges and private organizations have made this day a holiday as well.

If you are just now hearing about Juneteenth, this is your chance to learn more about the legacy of slavery in this country and why this holiday still matters today. The day is not just for talking about the complexities of racism or the horrors of slavery; it’s also about cherishing and celebrating the black experience and black culture. From music to movies, novels, and podcasts, spend some time learning what it was like to live with slavery and how it feels to be black in this country. Keep the conversation going.

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