What You Need to Know About Juneteenth

There’s a broader public movement to honor the long-running holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S.

What You Need to Know About Juneteenth

Participants take part in a Juneteenth Parade in Philadelphia, 2019

Photo by Tippman98x/Shutterstock

On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with Union troops. They were there in the far western reaches of the former Confederacy to announce the end of the war and the end of slavery.

General Order number 3 read:

“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 at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Juneteenth, named for the original month and date of the announcement, commemorates the day the last enslaved people in the United States were informed they were legally free. Other names include Juneteenth Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Liberation Day.

What were early Juneteenth celebrations like?

With assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau, the first Juneteenth festivities took place in Galveston in 1866, and it became an annual tradition in Texas. Juneteenth celebrations brought together families and friends for music, games, speeches, reflection, prayer, and food. Barbecue, tea cakes, and strawberry soda are among the traditional foods associated with the holiday. As people left Texas and made their lives elsewhere, they took their Juneteenth traditions with them and the holiday became more widespread.

Celebrating liberation on Juneteenth wasn’t easy, even though emancipation had become the law of the land. “When whites forbade Blacks from using their public spaces,” writes historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites, among them Emancipation Park in Houston and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.” It’s important to note that Juneteenth began as a holiday deeply rooted in Texas and folks with Texas connections; many Black communities elsewhere held their own local emancipation celebrations on different dates.

A variety of factors led to ebbs and flows of popularity for Juneteenth during the 20th century, among them the steady increase of segregation laws, and a whitewashing of school history books to omit information about slavery. But a broader resurgence in awareness for Juneteenth came about after 1968; historian William H. Wiggins, Jr. theorized in an interview with Smithsonian that this was possibly because organizers for the Poor People’s March on Washington coordinated a June ’Teenth Solidarity Day and then took the idea into their communities.

What is Juneteenth like today?

In 1980, Texas became the first U.S. state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. Now, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize it as a holiday or observance; Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only states that do not officially mark Juneteenth. It is not a federal paid holiday like Memorial Day or Labor Day.

Advocates like Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee are working to change that: On June 15, 2020, she introduced a resolution to observe the historical significance of Juneteenth Independence Day, and has told a local Houston news station that she intends to introduce a bill soon that will push for federal recognition. A growing number of U.S. companies like Lyft and Twitter are also adding Juneteenth to their list of paid company holidays. (It is under consideration for AFAR’s 2021 employee calendar.) Awareness surrounding the holiday is increasing, especially in the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality and the continued systemic racism Black people face in America.

As with any holiday, traditions evolve and vary based on the community in which it’s celebrated. In a typical year, cities across the country hold Juneteenth festivals and parades, pageants, music performances, and even book fairs. Reflection, education, and political activism continue to be integral in much Juneteenth programming. “If we truly want to realize emancipation we all need to demand that it include, equal justice under the law,” writes Delores Nochi Cooper, organizer of the Berkeley California Juneteenth Festival, which was canceled this year due to COVID-19. Cooper’s statement is part of No Justice, No Emancipation, a series of reflections that commemorate Juneteenth and the Black experience in the current moment.

Due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, some in-person celebrations have been canceled, but many have been scheduled virtually, like the NAACP’s Juneteenth Black Family Reunion, the Juneteenth Celebration of Resilience hosted by the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and Juneteenth 2020 organized by art community House of Ease. Check with your city’s event listings to find out more about a Juneteenth festivity in your area or online—and consider supporting a Black-owned restaurant in your area if you choose to dine out or order in.

To learn more about Juneteenth and other emancipation celebrations in the United States, check out Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. Here Wee Read’s Bookshop has a great Juneteenth-related reading list for families.

>>Next: 15 Places to Learn About African American History

Sara Button is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience.
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