The story behind Juneteenth and how it became a federal holiday

Americans will soon celebrate June 19, marking the day the last slaves in the United States were told they were free.

For generations, black Americans have happily acknowledged the end of one of the darkest chapters in US history, in the form of parades, street festivals, musical performances or barbecues.

The U.S. government was slow to seize the opportunity – it wasn’t until 2021 that President Joe Biden signed a bill passed by Congress to set aside June 19 or June 19 as a federal holiday.

And just as many people learn about Juneteenth, the traditions of the holiday are facing new pressures — with political rhetoric condemning efforts to teach Americans about the nation’s racial history, corporations using the holiday as a marketing event, people partying without understanding why.

Here’s a look at the origins of Juneteenth, how it became a federal holiday, and more about its history.


The celebrations began with slaves in Galveston, Texas. Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places in the South until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Even then, some whites who had taken advantage of their unpaid work were hesitant to share the news. .

Laura Smalley, released from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, recalled in a 1941 interview that the man she called the “old master” had returned from fighting in the Civil War and had no not tell the people he had enslaved what had happened.

“The old master didn’t say, you know, they were free,” Smalley said. “I think they’re now saying they’ve worked them, six months later. Six months. And unleash them on June 19. That’s why, you know, we celebrate this day.

News that the war was over and they were free finally reached Galveston when Union Major General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in the Gulf Coast city on June 19, 1865, more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia.

Granger issued General Order No. 3, which read, “The people of Texas are informed that, pursuant to a proclamation of the Executive Branch of the United States, all slaves are free. This implies an absolute equality of personal rights and property rights between former masters and slaves, and the bond hitherto existing between them becomes that between employer and wage labor.

The now free residents of Galveston began celebrating June 19 the following year, a celebration that continued and spread around the world. Events include concerts, parades, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.


It’s a mixture of the words june and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, second Independence Day, and Emancipation Day.

It started with picnics and church talks, and spread as black Texans moved elsewhere.

Most US states now hold celebrations honoring June 19 as a holiday or a day of recognition, such as Flag Day. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies are giving workers the day off.

Opal Lee, a former teacher and activist, is widely credited with rallying others behind a campaign to make June 19 a federal holiday. The 96-year-old had vivid memories of celebrating June 19 in East Texas as a child with music, food and games. In 2016, the “little old lady in tennis shoes” traveled through her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, then other cities before arriving in Washington, D.C. Soon, celebrities and politicians brought her their support.

Lee was one of the people standing next to Biden when he signed Juneteenth into law.


The national race toll sparked by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd has helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors, a show of bipartisan support as lawmakers struggled to overcome simmering divisions three years later.

There is now a movement to use the holidays as an opportunity for activism and education, with community service projects aimed at addressing racial disparities and educational signs on topics such as inequalities in healthcare. health and the need for parks and green spaces.

Like most holidays, Juneteenth has also seen its fair share of commercialism. Retailers, museums and other venues took advantage by selling June 19-themed T-shirts, party supplies and ice cream. Some of the marketing failed, causing a backlash on social media.

Supporters of the holiday have also worked to ensure that June 19 celebrants don’t forget why the day exists.

“In 1776 the country was liberated from the British, but not all people were free,” Dee Evans, national communications director for the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. was actually when the people and the whole country was actually free.

There is also a sense of using this day to remember the sacrifices that have been made for freedom in the United States, especially in these days fraught with racism and politics.

Says Para LaNell Agboga, museum site coordinator at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin, Texas: “Our freedoms are fragile, and it doesn’t take much for things to roll back.

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