Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated on June 19, is the oldest celebration to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
While Juneteenth is not a federal holiday, most states started observing it within the last 15 years. Historically, the day is primarily celebrated by African Americans, but support has grown this year sparked by the recent death of George Floyd and nationwide protests fighting police brutality and systemic racism.
The holiday is a time to reflect, educate everyone about the day’s significance and remember the accomplishments of African Americans, according to Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
“Juneteenth is an American holiday, and it has something for everybody from every perspective,” Williams pointed out. “If you are a recipient, a beneficiary, a direct beneficiary of the 13th Amendment, it tells you that you have the ability to secure liberty.”
If you are celebrating Juneteenth this year, here are five things to know about the holiday:
What is Juneteenth?
When students learn about slavery in school, most are taught that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed all enslaved people in the South. But what some people may not know is that it took several years before some slaves, further from the Union, found out they were free.
On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that Lincoln had freed black slaves two and a half years earlier. This was the moment that enslaved people in Galveston learned they were free — the news was met with both shock and delight. Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to receive notice that slavery was abolished. Over time, these people and their descendants celebrated Freedom Day, Emancipation Day or “Juneteenth,” a name that combines the words “June” and “nineteenth,” as the day they were emancipated. Juneteenth celebrations began in 1866 and have since spread to cities across the country, Williams said.
How is it celebrated?
Juneteenth celebrations usually include educational activities, parades, festivals, beauty pageants, prayer breakfasts, concerts, barbecues and spending time with family, Williams said.
According to Juneteenth.com, clothing was an important symbol of freedom in early celebrations: formerly enslaved people would throw old clothing in rivers and wear nicer clothes taken from their former plantations. Some former slaves and their descendants would even make a pilgrimage back to Galveston, Texas, to celebrate the origins of Juneteenth — a tradition that, while less popular, still takes place today.
How will it be celebrated this year?
While the COVID-19 pandemic limits big celebrations, there are still many events to commemorate Juneteenth this year, both virtual and in person. Many of the in-person events planned are protests against racism and police brutality. Strike for Black Lives is hosting a general strike in Washington, D.C., and encouraging others to organize similar events in their own cities.
Many of the virtual ways to celebrate Juneteenth are cultural. The National Museum of African American History and Culture posted a virtual tour of their Slavery and Freedom exhibit, led by their founding director, that’s free to watch. The black music collective Sweet Honey in the Rock is hosting a virtual concert that will be posted to their website, YouTube and Facebook. You can also watch movies or TV to learn more about Juneteenth — “Atlanta” and “Black-ish” have both featured the holiday in special episodes. “Miss Juneteenth,” a movie about a young black pageant star will premier June 19 on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Xfinity and other digital streaming platforms.
Donald Trump originally planned to host a campaign rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the most deadly incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. The timing and location of the event were immediately met with widespread criticism, and Trump eventually postponed the event “out of respect” for the holiday. The rally was rescheduled for Saturday.
Click here to find a Juneteenth celebration or demonstration near you.
Where is it a state holiday?
Texas officially recognized June 19 as a holiday on January 1, 1980. This first official celebration was primarily thanks to the efforts of Al Edwards, a Houston legislator, and other activists. Edwards, who died this April, spent his career advocating for the widespread recognition of Juneteenth across the country.
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have since passed bills or resolutions to commemorate Juneteenth; the only states that haven’t formally recognized the holiday are Hawaii and North and South Dakota. The governors of New York and Virginia recently committed, making it a permanent, paid state holiday.
How will companies celebrate?
In the weeks leading up to Juneteenth, corporations such as Nike, Twitter, the National Football League, Postmates and Buzzfeed announced they would make Juneteenth a company holiday. Some companies, including Target, have committed money to support social justice efforts.
While state or company holidays are “okay,” Williams said it’s more important to actively observe Juneteenth and teach others about black history and their pursuit of liberty.
“Having another day off is not as important as having a day of observance where you can focus on the issue at hand — and that issue is our liberty and our freedom,” he said. “So if you give everybody a day off with no concentration or no education on a subject, that’s not going to slow down the bad things that are happening in America. Having a holiday with no understanding is mute.”