By Nadra Kareem Nittle writing for ThoughtCo.
Juneteenth, a blend of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” celebrates the end of slavery in America. Also known as America’s second Independence Day, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth honors enslaved people, African-American heritage, and the many contributions that Blacks have made to the United States.
Though observed or recognized as a holiday by most states and the majority of U.S. citizens, Juneteenth is not yet a federal holiday.
History of Juneteenth
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the enslavement of African people met a formal end in states controlled by the Confederacy. 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.
More shockingly, some 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 Blacks enslaved in Texas, the most distant slave-dependent 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 people and descendants of gathered together to pray, eat, dance, and hear each other’s stories on this historic day. 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 as slaves 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 masters. 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 World War II reached the United States in the 1940s either. 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 slavery.
Calls for 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.” Now, he has 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 Clinton made remarks on it at a voter registration project in Texas and President Bush delivered a Message on the Observance of Juneteenth in 2008. But despite this support, no president has yet declared Juneteenth a National Day of Recognition.
The general public and states, however, continue to fight for this legislation. Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia commemorate or observe Juneteenth.2 Only North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii do not. Even private and public corporations have 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 Obama “Tomorrow Is a Day to Keep Marching”
On June 19, 2015, the White House released a statement from President Barack Obama marking the observance of Juneteenth that said in part:3
Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. Instead, it’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, things do get better. America can change.
So no matter our color or our creed, no matter where we come from or who we love, today is a day to find joy in the face of sorrow, to count our blessings and hold the ones we love a little closer. And tomorrow is a day to keep marching.