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The history behind the newest federal holiday in the U.S. — Juneteenth

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U.S. President Joe Biden made Juneteenth an official federal holiday for Americans this week, signing into law a bill commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, which has been celebrated on June 19 by Black Americans for generations.

But the now-156-year-old day of celebration was largely unfamiliar to many non-Black people in the U.S. and around the world until the last year or so.

Juneteenth rose to the forefront in 2020, due in large part to the killings of several Black Americans, the ensuing anti-racism protests and a Trump campaign rally initially planned for the same date. 

Here’s a reminder of the history behind the date. 

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery. On June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves they had been freed. 

He was actually a bit late. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863. By June 19, 1865, Lincoln had been assassinated, and the 13th amendment that would abolish slavery in the United States would be ratified six months later. 

An engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie depicting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, based on a painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, circa 1866. (Alexander Hay Ritchie/Francis Bicknell Carpenter/Library of Congress via Reuters)

There are various theories about why it took so long for the news to reach Texas. It was, in fact, the last state in the Confederacy to get word. 

There have been stories that a messenger was murdered on his way to Texas with the news and that slave owners kept the news to themselves so that they could keep their labour force intact.

Some historians believe it is more likely that due to a lack of Union soldiers there during the war, Texas largely remained a Confederate state until 1865 when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered.  

So it was news to the 250,000 or so slaves in the state on June 19, when Granger — sent to command the Department of Texas — carried out one of his first duties in announcing General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” 

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Spontaneous celebrations broke out as the news spread, and these gave rise to annual events to mark the day.”

The name Juneteenth  is a combination of June and 19th. It has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day.

Juneteenth experienced a revival in 1968 during the civil rights era. A few months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his wife, Coretta Scott King, addressed a crowd of almost 50,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during a Juneteenth Solidarity Day rally. She told those gathered that racism, poverty, and war had combined to make matters worse for poor black and white alike. (Bettmann Archive)

How is it celebrated? 

Juneteenth celebrations were first held in Texas in 1866. Over the next several years, as participation grew, African Americans needed larger spaces to hold their celebrations. In 1872, a group of Black ministers and supporters raised $1,000 to buy a tract of land in Houston, which would become Emancipation Park

As former slaves moved to other states, they brought the Juneteenth tradition of celebration with them. About six million African Americans from the rural South moved to cities in the North, Midwest and West from about 1916 to 1970. 

Celebrations of the day ebbed and flowed over the years. Some people took the stance that it was too much of a look backward on a painful past rather than a focus on the future. 

But it was given prominence again in 1968, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On June 19 of that year, his Poor People’s Campaign held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day. It attracted between 50,000 and 100,000 people and featured speakers including King’s friend and activist Ralph Abernathy, and his widow Coretta Scott King. 

Today it is celebrated in American cities big and small, some with parades, Miss Juneteenth beauty pageants and public parties, many with backyard barbecues.

From left to right, Miss Juneteenth Nevada Aniya Brown, Little Miss Juneteenth Journee Walton, and Miss Jubilee Jaslyn Johnson are shown at the historical Harrison House, where black entertainers stayed during days of segregation, in Las Vegas on June 19, 2020. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Where has Juneteenth been previously observed?

Before Biden declared it a federal holiday, 49 states and the District of Columbia had already passed legislation recognizing it as a holiday or observance.

The only state that has not done so is South Dakota; both North Dakota and Hawaii moved to recognize it in the past year. 

Texas was the first to declare Juneteenth a statewide official holiday in 1980. 

Last year, New York’s governor signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. 

Fireworks explode during Juneteenth celebrations above the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Friday, June 19, 2020. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

“It is a day we should all reflect upon. It is a day that is especially relevant in this moment in history,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

In recent years, celebrations have also spread to other countries, including Canada. 

WATCH | Last year’s march for Juneteenth in Vancouver:

This is the city’s first large-scale Juneteenth protest, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago. 1:25

Why did it become such a flashpoint last year?

In early June 2020, former president Donald Trump announced he would hold his first political rally in months in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19. 

Tulsa is the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history: the 1921 race massacre. Mobs of white people attacked African Americans and their businesses, killing as many as 300 people. 

Trump told Fox News at the time that the June 19 date for his rally wasn’t intentional, saying, “It’s going to be really a celebration and it’s an interesting date. It wasn’t done for that reason, but it’s an interesting date.”

However, following days of criticism and calls for him to change it, Trump’s campaign moved the rally to the following night. 

A group of people in Tulsa, Okla., look toward smoke in the distance, coming from damaged properties following the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Major companies marking Juneteenth

In 2019, Google made headlines for not marking the holiday with its customary Google doodle when Davian Chester, a digital artist in Georgia, called out the tech giant and offered up his own version.

But in 2020, amid heightened tensions following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and the huge anti-racism protests across the U.S. and around the world, many major companies and organizations decided to recognize Juneteenth. 

Nike, Twitter, Square, Lyft and the NFL were among those giving their U.S. employees a paid day off. 

Nike CEO John Donahoe wrote in a memo to employees that observing Juneteenth represents an “important opportunity to better commemorate and celebrate Black history and culture.”

Participants kneel during a Juneteenth love demonstration in Chambersburg, Pa., on June 20, 2020. (Colleen McGrath/The Herald-Mail via The Associated Press)

Pop culture references

In 2016, Donald Glover’s series Atlanta produced an episode called Juneteenth, in which the main characters go to an upscale party — a very different celebration from those their ancestors might have attended.

The sitcom Black-ish did a Juneteenth episode, too, in 2017, which was a bit more of a history lesson — though with a good dose of parody mixed in. Musical group The Roots re-enacted the end of slavery in an animated bit as part of the show. 

The film Miss Juneteenth was released last June. It tells the story of a former beauty queen who prepares her daughter to compete in the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. 

And in 1999, American novelist Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, was published posthumously. Penguin Random House describes it as “a brilliant exploration of the American soul in all its heroic idealism, its moral ambivalence, and its still-troubled sense of racial identity.”

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