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Juneteenth: The 156-year-old holiday's history explained

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MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JUNE 19: Members of the parade perform during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival on June 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images for VIBE)
Dylan Buell | Getty Images

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill that officially establishes Juneteenth, a 156-year-old holiday celebrating the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in the U.S., as a federal holiday.

Biden's signing of the bill, which quickly worked its way through Congress with bipartisan support earlier this week, comes at a time when Juneteenth has been in the news more than at any point in the past century-and-a-half.

Over the past year, businesses such as Twitter and Square, Nike, the the National Football League had already announced that they would recognize Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, as a paid company holiday. Juneteenth had already been gaining in prominence as more and more leaders and companies across the United States launched efforts to support Black people and culture following last year's widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

Just a year ago, then-President Donald Trump announced that he would no longer resume his 2020 presidential campaign with a rally on June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma "out of respect" for the Juneteenth holiday after facing backlash. Now, that date is an official federal holiday, with the current president calling signing the bill "one of the greatest honors" of his presidency.

"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments," Biden said at the White House ceremony celebrating the bill's signing. "They embrace them."

So what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Here's what you need to know. 

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a 156-year-old holiday celebrating the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in the U.S. It is celebrated on June 19 (the name is a combination of the words "June" and "nineteenth") because on that date in 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished.

Granger and roughly 2,000 Union soldiers were there to enforce President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which had actually gone into effect more than two years earlier, on January 1, 1863. (In fact, Lincoln himself had been assassinated a few months earlier, in April 1865.)

However, the more than 250,000 slaves in Texas were still shocked to hear the by then years old news that they were free, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

On June 19, in Galveston, Granger publicly read General Order No. 3, which stated: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

Today, there remain varying accounts of why it took so long for the news of slavery's abolition to reach Texas, with one story claiming that a messenger bearing the news was murdered on his way there. However, many historians note that Texas remained a Confederate state until 1865, when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to the Union Army, and the state would therefore not have enforced Lincoln's proclamation until the Union took control.

Historians also report that many slave owners in Texas intentionally withheld information about the Emancipation Proclamation from slaves before 1865 in order to keep their labor force intact. 

Regardless, Granger's arrival and the news that slavery had been abolished by the federal government kicked off widespread celebrations across the state. 

In the book, "Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas," a former slave named Felix Haywood recalled the first celebrations on June 19, 1865: "We was all walkin' on golden clouds….Everybody went wild...We was free. Just like that we was free."

The importance of the holiday

Simply put, Juneteenth is "the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States," according to Juneteenth.com.

In addition to marking a date of major significance in American history, Juneteenth has always been both a day of remembrance and an opportunity for African-Americans to honor their history and celebrate Black culture.

African-American historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that, over generations, Juneteenth became: "an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights."

How the celebrations evolved and spread

In 1866, freed slaves in Texas marked June 19 with anniversary celebrations that included prayer services and church gatherings in the Black community. 

Over subsequent years, former slaves and their families continued celebrating their freedom with annual Juneteenth celebrations that also featured former slaves delivering inspirational speeches and reading from the Emancipation Proclamation. It marked a day for "grass-roots celebration highlighted by joyous singing, pig roasts, and rodeos," according to Smithsonian Magazine.

In a 2007 essay titled "Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory," historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner wrote about former slaves and their descendants who continued celebrating the Juneteenth holiday for generations after 1865.

One descendant of slaves recounted in that essay how Juneteenth celebrations sometimes included homemade pyrotechnics: "'My daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.'"

In 1872, a group of former Texas slaves collected more than $800 to buy 10 acres of open land, near what is now Houston, to use for annual Juneteenth celebrations. They named the parcel Emancipation Park, and it remains the oldest public park in the state. 

As newly-freed Texas slaves began resettling across the country, as part of The Great Migration of former slaves, the tradition of Juneteenth celebrations also spread to new locales across the South and the rest of the U.S. over the next century.

An Emancipation Day celebration band, June 19, 1900.
University of North Texas Libraries | Wikimedia Commons

However, especially during the post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, former Confederate states had little inclination to recognize Juneteenth, according to Smithsonian Magazine. As such, the "grass-roots" aspect of Juneteenth celebrations was often the norm well into the 20th Century, which contributed to the Juneteenth holiday regularly going unnoticed by Americans outside of the Black community. It has still rarely been mentioned in school curricula. As a result, "this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans," the National Museum of African American History & Culture notes.

Juneteenth remained a major celebration for the Black community in Texas, however. In 1938, Texas designated a day of observance for Juneteenth celebrations, called Emancipation Day, two years after up to 200,000 people turned out for Juneteenth celebrations in Dallas. 

Still, Juneteenth did not become an official state holiday in Texas until 1980.

Overall, Juneteenth celebrations began to see a broader resurgence among the Black community in the middle of the 20th Century, especially amid the civil rights movement.

"The Black Power movement, in particular, with its emphasis on pride, culture, identity, and re-claiming history, helped spark a renewed interest in Juneteenth," Anthony Greene, an associate professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston, said in a 2018. "Additionally, as Black Studies (African American Studies) programs have developed on college campuses, accurate Black historical narratives have emerged, also helping to generate more interest in celebrations such as Juneteenth."

How Juneteenth is celebrated today

In recent years, presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have issued statements of observance for the Juneteenth holiday, but efforts to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday had fallen short in Congress until this year. "Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after the U.S. Senate approved the bill making Juneteenth a national holiday this week.

In total, 48 states and the District of Columbia had all passed legislation already recognizing Juneteenth as either a state holiday or day of observance (Hawaii and South Dakota are the only states that have not yet recognized the holiday).

Juneteenth celebrations take place each year across the country.

In 2019, thousands of people celebrated the holiday in Houston's Emancipation Park, the piece of land originally bought by a group of former slaves for that very purpose (and, which received a $33 million renovation in 2016).

As per the holiday's traditions, celebrations still often feature some mix of religious services and storytelling, while music, food, parades and other jubilant celebrations of Black culture. 

Historians often point out that barbecue has always been a focal point of the holiday (with Texas newspaper articles from the late-1800s reporting that "the preparation and sharing of food was the main attraction" at many a Juneteenth celebration). A 2015 Texas Monthly article about the historical connection between the food and Juneteenth advised that the best way to celebrate "this thoroughly Texas-rooted holiday, [is to] do it with some barbecue."

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JUNE 19: A vendor prepares food during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival on June 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Dylan Buell | Getty Images for VIBE

Another common culinary sight at Juneteenth celebrations is red-colored food and drink — "the crimson a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage," according to The New York Times — such as red punch and red velvet cake. Food historians have also said the red foods could have been influenced by the fact that the color red signifies strength in some West African cultures. 

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