Juneteenth: Roots of the annual celebration of emancipation and it becoming a federal holiday

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On June 19, 1865, a Union Army general announced to the enslaved Black population in Galveston, Texas, that by law slavery was over and had been for two years. They were the last remaining enslaved in the U.S.; which started the celebration of Juneteenth. 

When Black anti-enslavement and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was asked to deliver a Fourth of July address in his hometown of Rochester, New York in 1852, the audience undoubtedly expected the usual holiday speech filled with patriotism, references to what was then the 76th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence signing; the Revolutionary War that ended colonization by the British; and how the U.S. was becoming a mighty power in North America as well as in the world.

Imagine how shocked the audience was when instead Douglass used the occasion to point out that not everyone in the U.S. was happy and free.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” questioned Douglass. 

“I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Douglass could not have anticipated that only 13 years after his speech, all Black people enslaved in the U.S. would be free. Nor, would he have predicted that an incident in Texas would result in a Black observance of that freedom.

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Juneteenth Martha Yates Jones (left) and Pinkie Yates (right), daughters of Rev. Jack Yates, in a decorated carriage parked in front of the Antioch Baptist Church located in Houston’s Fourth Ward, 1908. Photo credit: Houston Public Library Digital Archives

Although the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to have freed enslaved Black people across the country, there was a catch; it only freed them in territories not under Confederate control. 

Because Texas was still under Confederate control, 250,000 Black Texans were still enslaved until June 19, 1865.   On that day, Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, took command of 2,000 Union troops there, and announced that enslavement for Black people in Texas was over under General Order Number 3.

While many celebrated their newfound freedom, not all owners of the formerly enslaved Black people obeyed the order. Some did not tell the Black people they were enslaved until after they brought in the harvest that year. Some newly freed Black people were shot by white Texans, who then hanged their bodies, as described by formerly enslaved Susan Merritt in historian Leon Litwack’s book, “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.” She accounts, “You could see lots of n—ers  hangin’ to trees in the Sabine bottom right after freedom,” said Merritt, “’cause they cotch ‘em swimmin’ ‘cross the Sabine River and shoot ‘em.”

Yet, Black Texans continued to celebrate Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth” as the date when their enslaved ancestors were freed.  Observance of the Juneteenth spread to other states. In Texas, Juneteenth’s birthplace, it has been     officially recognized since 1980. 

Earlier this month, Oregon’s state legislature passed a bill making Juneteenth a legal state holiday beginning 2022. The state of Washington has followed suit, also making Juneteenth a state holiday this year. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth. Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only states which do not.   

This week, the Biden-Harris Administration signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, the national holiday to commemorate the emancipation of Blacks. “Today, we consecrate Juneteenth for what it ought to be, what it must be: a national holiday . . . a holiday that will join the others of our national celebrations: our independence, our laborers who built this nation, our servicemen and women who served and died in its defense,” said President Joe Biden in the signing of the act.

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Dinner 1865 even in June 2018 where different chefs introduced various cuisines in celebration of Juneteenth. Chef Carla Hall served as narrator of the event. Ark Republic co-sponsored the event. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

The first national holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. the road to Juneteenth started years ago. Citizens like 94-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas,  arrange speaking engagements across the country to promote Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Lee began her effort in 2016, when she used to walk from Texas to Washington, D.C. to campaign for a national Juneteenth holiday. It was also symbolic as many formerly enslaved Blacks would trek to Washington D.C. annually on January 1 to recognize the emancipation day.

As far as federal legislation establishing a Juneteenth national observance, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and former California Senator, now Vice President of the U.S., Kamala Harris, introduced a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The measure was reintroduced this February by Senators Edward Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) as the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.       

“Juneteenth honors the end of years of suffering that African Americans endured under slavery and celebrates the legacy of perseverance that has become the hallmark of the African American experience in the struggle for equality,” said Representative Lee in a statement when the measure was introduced.

“Today we celebrate Juneteenth as a reflection of our ancestors’ strength, indomitable grace, and relentless hope,” said Senator Booker about the Senate bill.  “Our nation has so much work left to do in addressing the legacy and trauma of slavery and systemic racism that persists to this day. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is long overdue and will represent a step forward in the path toward accountability, justice and healing.”

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The House bill, H.R. 1320, was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The Senate bill, S.475, was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. On Tuesday, June 15, 2021m the Senate passed its Juneteenth bill unanimously. The following day, the House did the same with an overwhelming majority. Democrats hoping the President would sign the final version of the bill by Friday were met with a welcomed surprise as he did so on June 17, officially passing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law just two days before Juneteenth.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to celebrate Juneteenth, “Emancipation Day,” “Jubilee Day,” or even “Juneteenth Independence Day,” as it’s sometimes referenced. People have organized picnics, church observances, festivals, contests, and other celebratory activities. While the University of Redlands in California will inaugurate its first-ever Juneteenth events this month, places like Texas will honor the day with a pageant, parades, and music festivals.

Whatever your Juneteenth plans, you can post about them on the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation website. The foundation was also part of the movement to make Juneteenth a federally observed, national holiday.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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