What You Need to Know About Juneteenth, Our Newest National Holiday
Juneteenth, one of our most important and popular annual celebrations of freedom finally became recognized as a federal holiday in 2021. Here’s what you should know about the historic day.
On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas. All previously enslaved people in Texas — the last remaining enslaved people in the United States — were now free.
Despite the announcement — not to mention the two-and-a-half-year-old law abolishing slavery — freedom still eluded many Black Americans. Some who pursued their freedom after the declaration were shot or hung. Others continued to be forced into enslaved labor.
Nevertheless, “Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly ‘freed’ black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau, now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, ‘Juneteenth,’ beginning one year later in 1866,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”
Now, 155 years since Granger’s order, as the overwhelming evidence of police brutality and voter suppression targeted at Black people shows, the country still has a long journey toward full freedom and equality for Black Americans. That’s why millions of people the world over, from cities to rural towns, have peacefully voiced their solidarity with an idea that has eluded the American criminal justice system for so long: Black Lives Matter.
As a result of this uprising and public pressure — along with more people and companies, like Avocado, Twitter, Nike, the NFL, and Square paying homage to Juneteenth — in 2021, President Biden officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. The action is a win for social justice and a positive step in recognizing a significant date in our nation’s history — one that, until 2021, had been overlooked or ignored by many non-Black Americans. But for many, it’s long been one of the most important and popular celebrations of freedom in the country, annually enjoyed with red punch and cookouts (the Times has a round-up of great Juneteenth recipes).
It has been for Opal Lee. When she was a child, a white mob burned down her home after her family moved to a white neighborhood. The 93-year-old Forth Worth, Texas, civil rights activist has dedicated her life to supporting the celebration.
Now, every Juneteenth, she walks 2.5-miles — the number of years it took for enslaved people in Texas to be included in the Emancipation Proclamation — to raise awareness.
For years, Lee envisioned a nationwide celebration of freedom kicking off with Juneteenth and ending with the Fourth of July. Now that her dream has become reality, she hopes a federal embrace of Juneteenth will help us reckon with America’s past while unifying the country.
“It’s not a black thing. It’s not a Texas thing,” says Lee. “There have been so many people from various walks of life that helped slaves get free. And we need to acknowledge that.”
“Public acknowledgement is necessary. We have to get people aware.”
Lee believes now that Juneteenth is a national day of observance it will start other necessary conversations.
“Public acknowledgment is necessary. We have to get people aware,” said Lee. “Get it on the cotton pickin’ calendar and then we can address some of the other things that need to be done.”
Juneteenth is the first federal holiday to be approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
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