Juneteenth, observed on June 19, commemorates the end of all slavery in the United States and is celebrated across the country.
It now is on the list of federal holidays in the United States. Here is a dive into the history of the day, when it became a federal holiday, how it is celebrated throughout the country and more.
- What is the history of Juneteenth?
- Why is the day called Juneteenth?
- Is Juneteenth a federal holiday?
- How is Juneteenth celebrated in the United States?
- Why is Juneteenth controversial?
1. What is the history of Juneteenth?
Black Americans began to celebrate Juneteenth to mark the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the day when Texas – the last rebel state – officially abolished slavery.
On that day, Union Major Gen. Gordon Granger shared the news in Texas about the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves in the remaining rebel state were unaware that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the 1863 proclamation that freed slaves in Confederate states.
Slavery remained in effect after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia on April 9, 1865, and Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, according to historians. Approximately 250,000 slaves were freed in Texas following the army’s announcement.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress two years later, officially abolishing the institution of slavery.
Texas was the last state in rebellion following the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation had little impact in the Lone Star State due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce it.
However, following the surrender of Lee in April 1865, and the arrival of Granger’s regiment, the Union forces were strong enough to enforce Lincoln’s executive order.
“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. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
The above order was issued by Granger on June 19, 1865, and it was met with a range of reactions, from pure shock to immediate jubilation. That celebration has been coined “Juneteenth” and, for decades, freed men and women and their descendants have annually commemorated the anniversary.
2. Why is the day called Juneteenth?
Juneteenth combines the words June, (the month when it takes place) and the number 19, (the exact date).
Before the name Juneteenth was used to title the day, other names used were Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Freedom Day and Black Independence Day.
3. Is Juneteenth a federal holiday?
Juneteenth was made into a federal holiday during the first year of President Joe Biden’s administration. The House of Representatives voted 415-14 in June 2021 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Biden then signed the bill into law the next day.
“Juneteenth marks both a long hard night of slavery subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come,” Biden said in a statement at the time. He called the day a reminder of the “terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.”
The other federal holidays that are observed in the United States each year are New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The addition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday means that all federal workers get a paid day off on the day.
4. How is Juneteenth celebrated in the United States?
The celebrations typically feature music, BBQs, prayer services, parades, festivals and other activities. These celebrations continued to spread as Black Americans migrated from Texas to other parts of the country. However, economic and cultural forces in the early 20th century provided a decline in Juneteenth celebrations – at least outside of Texas.
Meanwhile, in classrooms and history books, little or nothing was mentioned of Gen. Granger’s order as Lincoln’s proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, became the date signaling the end of slavery. Juneteenth received a resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s – particularly after the Poor Peoples March to Washington, D.C., in 1968, which was cut short on Juneteenth of that year.
Observers of the day state that the annual acknowledgment of this point in history serves as a reminder that slavery wasn’t actually abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the years that followed, interest in Juneteenth continued to grow as Blacks in the United States sought to make sure the events of 1865 were not lost to history. In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator.
5. Why is Juneteenth controversial?
The date became a point of contention in 2020 when the Trump administration announced it would hold a major campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19. The announcement sparked a furor among Democrats and the president’s critics for both the date and the location.
Tulsa was the site of a 1921 massacre of Black residents and the destruction of Black-owned businesses. Trump soon announced he was moving the rally to June 20 “out of respect.” Today nearly every state, and the District of Columbia, holds Juneteenth observances.
Moreover, Juneteenth was celebrated in 2020 by members of the Black Lives Matter movement during protests over the death of George Floyd. Activists advocating to defund the police did so on Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, in St. Louis following Floyd’s death, which was met with nationwide protests and outrage.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.