Juneteenth: The history of a new holiday

June 16, 2022

Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War, has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.

President Biden signed legislation last year that made Juneteenth, which falls on June 19, a federal holiday, after interest in the day was renewed during the summer of 2020 and the nationwide protests that followed the police killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

There has been a noticeable increase in Juneteenth celebrations across the United States over the past few years. With this year’s holiday coming just over a month after a white gunman killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent U.S. history, Juneteenth celebrations may resonate in new ways.

Here’s a brief guide to Juneteenth.

How did Juneteenth begin?

On June 19, 1865, about two months after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. General Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln.

The holiday is also called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”

How is it celebrated?

Early celebrations involved prayer and family gatherings, and later included annual pilgrimages to Galveston by former enslaved people and their families, according to Juneteenth. com.

In 1872, a group of African American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park which was intended to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

Today, while some celebrations take place among families in backyards where food is an integral element, some cities, like Atlanta and Washington, hold larger events, including parades and festivals with residents, local businesses and more.

While celebrations in 2020 and 2021 were largely subdued by the coronavirus pandemic, some cities this year are pressing forward with plans.

Galveston has remained a busy site for Juneteenth events over the years, said Douglas Matthews, who has helped coordinate them for more than two decades.

After dedicating a 5,000-square-foot mural last year, in 2022 Galveston will celebrate the holiday with a banquet, poetry festival, parade and a picnic. Organizers in Atlanta will hold a parade and music festival at Centennial Olympic Park, and similar events are scheduled in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Tulsa, Okla.

The path to a national holiday.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to designate Juneteenth as a holiday. All 50 states and the District of Columbia now recognize the day in some form.

In the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality in 2020, the push for federal recognition of Juneteenth gained new momentum, and Congress quickly pushed through legislation in the summer of 2021.

In the House, the measure passed by a vote of 415 to 14, with all of the opposition coming from Republicans, some of whom argued that calling the new holiday Juneteenth Independence Day, echoing July 4, would create confusion and force Americans to choose a celebration of freedom based on their race.

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the bill into law, making Juneteenth the 11th holiday recognized by the federal government. At a White House ceremony, Mr. Biden singled out Opal Lee, an activist who at the age of 89 walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., and called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”

The law went into effect immediately, and the first federal Juneteenth holiday was celebrated the next day. (The holiday was observed on June 18, as June 19 fell on a Saturday.)

Why has Juneteenth become so important?

Following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-yearold Black man who died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police in May 2020, thousands of people around the United States poured onto the streets in protest. Mr. Floyd’s name, as well as the names of Ms. Taylor, Mr. Arbery, David McAtee and others, became a rallying cry for change across the country, effectively re-energizing the Black Lives Matter movement.

That change came in waves. In Minneapolis, officials banned the use of chokeholds and strangleholds by the police, and said officers must intervene and report any use of unauthorized force.

Democrats in Congress unveiled sweeping legislation targeting misconduct and racial discrimination by the police. The bill was the most expansive intervention into policing that lawmakers have proposed in recent memory. Companies across the business spectrum voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement and either suspended or fired employees who mocked Mr. Floyd’s death or made racist remarks.

In April 2021, Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty of two counts of murder in the death of Mr. Floyd. But two years on, many of the city’s residents say that genuine change has been slow.

Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies scholar at Duke University, said there are some comparisons between the end of the Civil War to the unrest that swept the country, adding that the moment felt like a “rupture.”

“The stakes are a little different,” Mr. Neal said.

“I think Juneteenth feels a little different now,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen.”

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