Juneteenth (officially Juneteenth National Independence Day and also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day) is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves. It is also often observed for celebrating African-American culture. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it has been celebrated annually on June 19 in various parts of the United States since 1865. The day was recognized as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Juneteenth's commemoration is on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for slaves in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.
|Observed by||United States|
|Significance||Emancipation of slaves in states in rebellion against the Union|
|Observances||African American history, culture and progress|
|2022 date||June 20|
|2023 date||June 19|
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and in all of the other Southern secessionist states of the original Confederacy except for parts of states not in rebellion. Enforcement of the Proclamation generally relied upon the advance of Union troops. Texas, as the most remote state of the former Confederacy, had seen an expansion of slavery and had a low presence of Union troops as the American Civil War ended; thus, enforcement there had been slow and inconsistent prior to Granger's announcement. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery in the Confederate States, it did not end slavery in states that remained in the Union. For a short while after the fall of the Confederacy, due to certain political considerations, slavery remained legal in two of the Union border states – Delaware and Kentucky. This seemingly conflicted situation ended both with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which constitutionally abolished chattel slavery nationwide on December 6, 1865, and also with the final actual release of slaves by the Indian Territories that had sided with the Confederacy, namely the Choctaw, in 1866.
Celebrations date to 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas. It spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on a food festival. Participants in the Great Migration out of the South carried their celebrations to other parts of the country. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, these celebrations were eclipsed by the nonviolent determination to achieve civil rights, but grew in popularity again in the 1970s with a focus on African American freedom and African-American arts. Beginning with Texas by proclamation in 1938, and by legislation in 1979, 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have formally recognized the holiday in various ways. With its adoption in certain parts of Mexico, the holiday became an international holiday. Juneteenth is celebrated by the Mascogos, descendants of Black Seminoles who escaped from slavery in 1852 and settled in Coahuila, Mexico.
Celebratory traditions often include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and the reading of works by noted African-American writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Some Juneteenth celebrations also include rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests. When Juneteenth became a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, it was the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was adopted in 1983.
Celebrations and traditions
The holiday is considered the "longest-running African-American holiday" and has been called "America's second Independence Day". Juneteenth is usually celebrated on the third Saturday in June. Historian Mitch Kachun considers that celebrations of the end of slavery have three goals: "to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate". Early celebrations consisted of baseball, fishing, and rodeos. African Americans were often prohibited from using public facilities for their celebrations, so they were often held at churches or near water. Celebrations were also characterized by elaborate large meals and people wearing their best clothing. It was common for former slaves and their descendants to make a pilgrimage to Galveston. As early festivals received news coverage, Janice Hume and Noah Arceneaux consider that they "served to assimilate African-American memories within the dominant 'American story'. "
Observance today is primarily in local celebrations. In many places, Juneteenth has become a multicultural holiday. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and reading of works by noted African-American writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Celebrations include picnics, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, blues festivals and Miss Juneteenth contests. Strawberry soda is a traditional drink associated with the celebration. The Mascogos, the descendants of Black Seminoles, who have resided in Coahuila, Mexico, since 1852, also celebrate Juneteenth.
Juneteenth celebrations often include lectures and exhibitions on African-American culture. The modern holiday places much emphasis upon teaching about African-American heritage. Karen M. Thomas wrote in Emerge that "community leaders have latched on to [Juneteenth] to help instill a sense of heritage and pride in black youth." Celebrations are commonly accompanied by voter registration efforts, the performing of plays, and retelling stories. The holiday is also a celebration of soul food and other food with African-American influences. In Tourism Review International, Anne Donovan and Karen DeBres write that "Barbecue is the centerpiece of most Juneteenth celebrations".
The Civil War and celebrations of emancipation
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), emancipation came at different times to various places in the Southern United States. Large celebrations of emancipation, often called Jubilees (recalling the biblical Jubilee in which slaves were freed) occurred on September 22, January 1, July 4, August 1, April 6, and November 1, among other dates. In Texas, emancipation came late: enforced in Texas on June 19, 1865, as the southern rebellion collapsed, emancipation became a well known cause of celebration. While June 19, 1865, was not actually the 'end of slavery' even in Texas (like the Emancipation Proclamation, itself, General Gordon's military order had to be acted upon) and although it has competed with other dates for emancipation's celebration, ordinary African Americans created, preserved, and spread a shared commemoration of slavery's wartime demise across the United States.
End of slavery in Texas
President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, announcing on September 22, 1862, that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It became effective on January 1, 1863, declaring that all enslaved persons in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were freed.
More isolated geographically, planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought enslaved people with them, increasing by the thousands the enslaved population in the state at the end of the Civil War. Although most lived in rural areas, more than 1,000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.
Despite the surrender of Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the western Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2. On the morning of June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas, to take command of the more than 2,000 federal troops recently landed in the department of Texas to enforce the emancipation of its slaves and oversee a peaceful transition of power, additionally nullifying all laws passed within Texas during the war by Confederate lawmakers. The Texas Historical Commission and Galveston Historical Foundation report that Granger’s men marched throughout Galveston reading General Order No. 3 first at Union Army Headquarters at the Osterman Building (formerly at the intersection of Strand Street and 22nd Street, since demolished), in the Strand Historic District. Next they marched to the 1861 Customs House and Courthouse before finally marching to the Negro Church on Broadway, since renamed Reedy Chapel-AME Church. The order informed all Texans that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves were free:
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.
Longstanding urban legend places the historic reading of General Order No. 3 at Ashton Villa; however, no extant historical evidence supports such claims. On June 21, 2014, the Galveston Historical Foundation and Texas Historical Commission erected a Juneteenth plaque where the Osterman Building once stood signifying the location of Major General Granger's Union Headquarters and subsequent issuance of his general orders.
Although this event has come to be celebrated as the end of slavery, emancipation for the remaining enslaved in two Union border states (Delaware and Kentucky), would not come until several months later, on December 18, 1865, when ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was announced. The freedom of formerly enslaved people in Texas was given state law status in a series of Texas Supreme Court decisions between 1868 and 1874.
Early Juneteenth celebrations
Formerly enslaved people in Galveston celebrated after the announcement. On June 19, 1866, one year after the announcement, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what became the annual celebration of "Jubilee Day". Early celebrations were used as political rallies to give voting instructions to newly freed African Americans. Early independence celebrations often occurred on January 1 or 4.
In some cities, black people were barred from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities. Across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations. The day was first celebrated in Austin in 1867 under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau, and it had been listed on a "calendar of public events" by 1872. That year, black leaders in Texas raised $1,000 for the purchase of 10 acres (4 ha) of land to celebrate Juneteenth, today known as Houston's Emancipation Park. The observation was soon drawing thousands of attendees across Texas; an estimated 30,000 black people celebrated at Booker T. Washington Park in Limestone County, Texas, established in 1898 for Juneteenth celebrations. Blacks began using the word Juneteenth early in the 1890s for Jubilee Day. A Texas periodical The Current Issue used the word as early as 1909, and that year a book on San Antonio, Texas remarked with condescension on "June 'teenth".
Decline during Jim Crow
In the early 20th century, economic and political forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. From 1890 to 1908, Texas and all former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised black people, excluding them from the political process. White-dominated state legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing second-class status. Gladys L. Knight writes the decline in celebration was in part because "upwardly mobile blacks ... were ashamed of their slave past and aspired to assimilate into mainstream culture. Younger generations of blacks, becoming further removed from slavery were occupied with school ... and other pursuits." Others who migrated to the Northern United States could not take time off or simply dropped the celebration.
The Great Depression forced many black people off farms and into the cities to find work, where they had difficulty taking the day off to celebrate. From 1936 to 1951, the Texas State Fair served as a destination for celebrating the holiday, contributing to its revival. In 1936, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people joined the holiday's celebration in Dallas. In 1938, Governor of Texas James V. Allred issued a proclamation stating in part:
Whereas, the Negroes in the State of Texas observe June 19 as the official day for the celebration of Emancipation from slavery; and
Whereas, June 19, 1865, was the date when General Robert [sic] S. Granger, who had command of the Military District of Texas, issued a proclamation notifying the Negroes of Texas that they were free; and
Whereas, since that time, Texas Negroes have observed this day with suitable holiday ceremony, except during such years when the day comes on a Sunday; when the Governor of the State is asked to proclaim the following day as the holiday for State observance by Negroes; and
Whereas, June 19, 1938, this year falls on Sunday; NOW, THEREFORE, I, JAMES V. ALLRED, Governor of the State of Texas, do set aside and proclaim the day of June 20, 1938, as the date for observance of EMANCIPATION DAY
in Texas, and do urge all members of the Negro race in Texas to observe the day in a manner appropriate to its importance to them.
Seventy thousand people attended a "Juneteenth Jamboree" in 1951. From 1940 through 1970, in the second wave of the Great Migration, more than five million black people left Texas, Louisiana and other parts of the South for the North and the West Coast. As historian Isabel Wilkerson writes, "The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went." In 1945, Juneteenth was introduced in San Francisco by an immigrant from Texas, Wesley Johnson.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement focused the attention of African Americans on expanding freedom and integrating. As a result, observations of the holiday declined again (though it was still celebrated in Texas).
Juneteenth soon saw a revival as black people began tying their struggle to that of ending slavery. In Atlanta, some campaigners for equality wore Juneteenth buttons. During the 1968 Poor People's Campaign to Washington, DC, called by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made June 19 the "Solidarity Day of the Poor People’s Campaign". In the subsequent revival, large celebrations in Minneapolis and Milwaukee emerged, as well as across the Eastern United States. In 1974, Houston began holding large-scale celebrations again, and Fort Worth, Texas, followed the next year. Around 30,000 people attended festivities at Sycamore Park in Fort Worth the following year. The 1978 Milwaukee celebration was described as drawing over 100,000 attendees. In the late 1980s, there were major celebrations of Juneteenth in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
Prayer breakfast and commemorative celebrations
In 1979, Democratic State Representative Al Edwards of Houston, Texas, successfully sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a paid Texas state holiday. The same year, he hosted the inaugural Al Edwards prayer breakfast and commemorative celebration on the grounds of the 1859 home, Ashton Villa. As one of the few existing buildings from the Civil War era and popular in local myth and legend as the location of Major General Granger’s announcement, Edwards's annual celebration includes a local historian dressed as the Union general reading General Order No. 3 from the second story balcony of the home. The Emancipation Proclamation is also read and speeches are made. Representative Al Edwards died of natural causes April 29, 2020, at the age of 83, but the annual prayer breakfast and commemorative celebration continued at Ashton Villa, with the late legislator's son Jason Edwards speaking in his father’s place.
Official statewide recognitions
In the late 1970s, when the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a "holiday of significance ... particularly to the blacks of Texas," it became the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. The bill passed through the Texas Legislature in 1979 and was officially made a state holiday on January 1, 1980. Before 2000, three more U.S. states officially observed the day, and over the next two decades it was recognized as an official observance in all states, except South Dakota, until becoming a federal holiday.
In June 2019, Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf recognized Juneteenth as a holiday in the state. In 2020, state governors of Virginia, New York, and New Jersey signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a paid day of leave for state employees. In 2021, Governor of Oregon Kate Brown signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a paid day of leave for state employees. On June 16, 2021, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed House Bill 3922, establishing Juneteenth as a paid state holiday starting in 2022; since 2003, it had been a state ceremonial observance in Illinois.
Juneteenth in pop culture and mass media
Since the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday has been more widely celebrated among African-American communities and has seen increasing mainstream attention in the US. In 1991, there was an exhibition by the Anacostia Community Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution) called “Juneteenth ’91, Freedom Revisited”. In 1994, a group of community leaders gathered at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans to work for greater national celebration of Juneteenth. Expatriates have celebrated it in cities abroad, such as Paris. Some US military bases in other countries sponsor celebrations, in addition to those of private groups. In 1999, Ralph Ellison's novel Juneteenth was published, increasing recognition of the holiday. By 2006, at least 200 cities celebrated the day.
In 1997, activist Ben Haith created the Juneteenth flag, which was further refined by illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf. In 2000, the flag was first hoisted at the Roxbury Heritage State Park in Boston by Haith. The star at the center represents Texas and the extension of freedom for all African Americans throughout the whole nation. The burst around the star represents a nova and the red curve represents a horizon, standing for a new era for African Americans. The red, white, and blue colors represent the American flag, which shows that African Americans and their enslaved ancestors are Americans, and the national belief in liberty and justice for all citizens.
The holiday has gained mainstream awareness outside African-American communities through depictions in entertainment media, such as episodes of TV series Atlanta (2016) and Black-ish (2017), the latter of which featured musical numbers about the holiday by Aloe Blacc, The Roots, and Fonzworth Bentley. In 2018, Apple added Juneteenth to its calendars in iOS under official U.S. holidays. Some private companies have adopted Juneteenth as a paid day off for employees, while others have officially marked the day in other ways, such as a moment of silence. In 2020, several American corporations and educational institutions, including Twitter, the National Football League, Nike, announced that they would treat Juneteenth as a company holiday, providing a paid day off to their workers, and Google Calendar added Juneteenth to its U.S. Holidays calendar. Also in 2020, a number of major universities formally recognized Juneteenth, either as a "day of reflection" or as a university holiday with paid time off for faculty and staff.
The 2020 mother-daughter film on the holiday's pageant culture, Miss Juneteenth, celebrates African-American women who are “determined to stand on their own,” while a resourceful mother is “getting past a sexist tendency in her community to keep women in their place.”
2020 Trump campaign scheduling controversy
In 2020, controversy ensued when President Donald Trump initially scheduled his first political rally since the COVID-19 pandemic's outbreak for June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of the 1921 race massacre in the Greenwood district. Two days after announcing the rally in Tulsa, President Trump asked a Black secret service agent about Juneteenth. "Yes, I know what it is," the agent said to Trump, "and it’s very offensive to me that you’re having this rally on Juneteenth." That night, Trump tweeted that he wished to change the date of his rally. He postponed it.
Becoming a federal holiday
In 1996, the first federal legislation to recognize "Juneteenth Independence Day" was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J. Res. 195, sponsored by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI). In 1997, Congress recognized the day through Senate Joint Resolution 11 and House Joint Resolution 56. In 2013, the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 175, acknowledging Lula Briggs Galloway (late president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage), who "successfully worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth Independence Day", and the continued leadership of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
In the 2000s and 2010s, activists continued a long process to push Congress towards official recognition of Juneteenth. Organizations such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation sought a Congressional designation of Juneteenth as a national day of observance. In 2016, Opal Lee, often referred to as the "grandmother of Juneteenth", walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. to advocate for a federal holiday. When it was officially made a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, it became one of five date-specific federal holidays along with New Year's Day (January 1), Independence Day (July 4), Veterans Day (November 11), and Christmas Day (December 25). Juneteenth will coincide with Father's Day in 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044, and 2050. Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a holiday in 1986. Juneteenth also falls within the statutory Honor America Days period, which lasts for 21 days from Flag Day (June 14) to Independence Day (July 4).
State and local
Texas was the first state to recognize the date, in 1980. By 2002, eight states officially recognized Juneteenth and four years later 15 states recognized the holiday. By 2008, nearly half of states observed the holiday as a ceremonial observance. By 2019, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth, although as of 2020 only Texas had adopted the holiday as a paid holiday for state employees. In the yearlong aftermath of the murder of George Floyd that occurred on May 25, 2020, nine states had designated Juneteenth a paid holiday, including New York, Washington, and Virginia. In 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker issued a proclamation that the day would be marked as "Juneteenth Independence Day". This followed the filing of bills by both the House and Senate to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Baker did not comment on these bills specifically, but promised to grant the observance of Juneteenth greater importance. On June 16, 2021, Illinois adopted a law changing its ceremonial holiday to a paid state holiday.
Some cities and counties have also recognized Juneteenth through proclamation. In 2020, Juneteenth was formally recognized by New York City (as an annual official city holiday and public school holiday, starting in 2021), although in 2022 it will be observed as a school holiday on June 20. Cook County, Illinois, adopted an ordinance to make Juneteenth a paid county holiday. The City and County of Honolulu recognizes it as an "annual day of honor and reflection", and Portland, Oregon (as a day of remembrance and action and a paid holiday for city employees).
North Dakota approved recognition of Juneteenth as a state recognized annual holiday on April 13, 2021, with Hawaii becoming the 49th state to recognize the holiday on June 16, 2021. On June 16, 2020 South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem proclaimed that the following June 19, 2020 was to be Juneteenth Day for that year only, spurning calls for it to be recognized annually, rather than just for 2020. As of June 2021, South Dakota is the only state that has not yet independently recognized Juneteenth as an annual state holiday or observance, according to the Congressional Research Service; nonetheless, its law provides for following the federal law.
Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States. For decades, activists and congress members (led by many African Americans) proposed legislation, advocated for, and built support for state and national observances. During his campaign for president in June 2020, Joe Biden publicly celebrated the holiday. President Donald Trump, during his campaign for reelection, added making the day a national holiday part of his "Platinum Plan for Black America". Spurred on by the advocates and the Congressional Black Caucus, on June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday; it subsequently passed through the House of Representatives by a 415–14 vote on June 16. President Joe Biden signed the bill (Pub.L. 117–17 (text) (pdf)) on June 17, 2021, making Juneteenth the eleventh American federal holiday and the first to obtain legal observance as a federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated in 1983. According to the bill, federal government employees will now get to take the day off every year on June 19, or should the date fall on a Saturday or Sunday, they will get the Monday or Friday closest to the Saturday or Sunday on which the date falls.
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- As of June 2021, South Dakota was the only state that did not independently recognize Juneteenth, according to the Congressional Research Service; North Dakota approved recognition of Juneteenth on April 13, 2021, with Hawaii becoming the 49th state to recognize the holiday on June 16, 2021.
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- Jennifer Schuessler, "Liberation as Death Sentence", The New York Times, June 11, 2012
- Berkeley Juneteenth Festival, 2014 celebration
- Juneteenth: Fact Sheet Congressional Research Service (updated June 3, 2020)
- Juneteenth in United States
- Juneteenth World Wide Celebration, website for 150th anniversary celebration
- Juneteenth Historical Marker, Juneteenth historical marker at 2201 Strand, Galveston, TX 77550