Story at a glance
- Juneteenth, or Black Independence Day, is the annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
- The holiday recognizes the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in all 50 states following the end of the Civil War.
- While the holiday is not yet designated as a federal holiday, it has risen dramatically in prominence in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
If you had never heard of Juneteenth before this year, you wouldn’t be alone. Celebrated annually on June 19 — a portmanteau of the month and date gives it its name — Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, and has been celebrated by black Americans since the late 1800s.
It’s the unfortunate truth, though, that many Americans are just now becoming aware of the holiday. Similarly, many are also finally learning about the horrific events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and the wider population has suddenly become active in their pursuit to remove confederate statues from public areas around the country.
We have the Black Lives Matter movement to thank. In 2013, the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin catalyzed the start of the Black Lives Matter movement — a centuries-old fight for racial equality and respect was taken digital. The movement has now hit what seems to be an apex following the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans, sparking weeks of protests across the country in a concerted effort to end police brutality and demand justice be served for those who met tragic and unnecessary ends.
Americans of all creeds are now publicly stepping up in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. With that fresh surge in demand for education and reform has also come a renewed interest in the day that celebrates freedom and condemns oppression — Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, or Black Independence Day.
The history of the day
It was New Year’s Day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Unfortunately, the proclamation didn’t immediately apply in certain areas like Texas, a secessionist state that had left the Union and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Two-and-a-half long years later, on June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended, saying “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
General Granger’s announcement finally signaled the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation throughout the entire country, and slavery was then formally abolished when Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nearly six months later, on Dec. 6, 1865. The following year on June 19, freed slaves kicked off the first celebration of Juneteenth in recognition of the end of slavery.
A national holiday?
Juneteenth is not considered a federal holiday, despite the fact that most states (47) recognize it as a state holiday. Efforts to make it a national holiday have stalled in Congress, though a resolution designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day” was passed by the Senate in 2018, and there are now several online petitions calling for the change. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also called for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday last year when he recognized Opal Lee, an activist in Fort Worth who campaigns for the cause.
While the holiday isn’t officially recognized just yet, the rapidly growing momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement has forced some of the biggest companies to stand up, such as Twitter and Square, whose founder Jack Dorsey designated Juneteenth as a company holiday.
Dorsey has also encouraged other companies to acknowledge the holiday, sharing a “Juneteenth Employer Recognition” Airtable link, and saying “Countries and regions around the world have their own days to celebrate emancipation, and we will do the work to make those dates company holidays everywhere we are present.”
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Twitter and Square were quickly followed by companies such as Nike, Vox Media, Buzzfeed and The New York Times, as well as the National Football League (NFL), which are all formally recognizing Juneteenth as a company holiday. Facebook said it plans to cancel meetings that day for a “day of learning” about the history and experience of black Americans, and companies like MasterCard are actively encouraging employees to use their day off to educate themselves about the history of racism in America or to volunteer with a civil rights organization.
How to observe Juneteenth
Juneteenth is typically celebrated as a day of education, commemoration and gathering, with cookouts and parades as a constant. This year, it’s still a toss up whether certain cities will be celebrating the holiday in person, and many events will most likely be livestreamed online.
This year, cities like Detroit already have weeklong celebrations in full swing, and Chicagoans are celebrating by supporting black-owned restaurants, as Black People Eats has brought together 47 restaurants that are offering Juneteenth specials. The website has also raised $72,000 for African American restaurants that were damaged by looters. In New York City and Washington D.C., coalitions of local organizers and activists called Fuel the People are rallying volunteers to hand out food and other necessary supplies to protestors this weekend.
Those who are unable to attend celebrations in person can use Juneteenth as a day of self-education — by reading books and articles written by black authors and about the black experience, or by watching informative movies. Those looking for entertainment can turn to Verzuz, the digital singing battle series created by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland during the pandemic, which announced Alicia Keys and John Legend will face off on the piano this Friday for a special celebration of Juneteenth.
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