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What is Juneteenth? A History: From Emancipation to National Holiday

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Its origins date back to June 19, 1865, when Union Army Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. This was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states were to be set free. However, the Proclamation had little effect on Texas, which was a remote Confederate state with a small presence of Union troops. As a result, enforcement of the Proclamation was slow and inconsistent. It wasn’t until General Granger’s arrival and his General Order No. 3 that the roughly 250,000 enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom.

The announcement of freedom caused an eruption of joy and celebrations among the newly emancipated African Americans. The day became known as “Juneteenth,” a blend of “June” and “nineteenth,” and has since been a day of celebration, reflection, and remembrance for African Americans.

The Spread of Juneteenth Celebrations

After the initial celebrations in Texas, Juneteenth began to spread to other states as African Americans migrated to different parts of the country. The early celebrations included parades, cookouts, prayer meetings, musical performances, and educational events. Families would gather to remember their ancestors and the struggles they endured, while also celebrating their newfound freedom and the progress made since emancipation.

Despite the significance of Juneteenth, it did not become a widely recognized national event. Many African Americans continued to celebrate it, but it remained largely a regional observance in the South. The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought renewed attention to Juneteenth, as activists sought to highlight the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice. During this period, Juneteenth took on greater symbolic meaning as a reminder of the long journey toward true freedom and equality for African Americans.

Juneteenth in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Throughout the 20th century, Juneteenth continued to be celebrated in African American communities, albeit with varying levels of recognition and participation. The civil rights movement and the subsequent push for Black empowerment in the 1970s and 1980s helped to revitalize interest in the holiday. Juneteenth festivals and events began to grow in size and scope, incorporating aspects of African American culture, history, and arts.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. This recognition marked a significant milestone in the efforts to raise awareness of the historical and cultural importance of the day. Over the next several decades, more states followed suit, passing legislation to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or observance.

The movement to elevate Juneteenth to national prominence continued to gain momentum in the 21st century. The holiday’s significance was increasingly recognized as a vital part of American history, not just African American history. This growing awareness was driven by grassroots advocacy, the efforts of historians and educators, and the tireless work of community organizers who sought to ensure that the story of Juneteenth was preserved and shared.

Recent Events Leading to National Recognition

The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the subsequent protests against systemic racism and police brutality, brought renewed attention to issues of racial inequality in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement and the widespread demonstrations highlighted the need for greater recognition of African American history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

In the wake of these events, there was a surge of support for making Juneteenth a national holiday. Advocates argued that officially recognizing Juneteenth would not only honor the legacy of those who fought for freedom but also serve as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to achieve true equality.

Bri Lamm
Bri Lamm
Bri is an outgoing introvert with a heart that beats for adventure. She lives to serve the Lord, experience the world, and eat macaroni and cheese in between capturing life’s greatest moments on one of her favorite cameras.

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