It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I first began hearing of Juneteenth celebrations being held on June 19th each year. But I had no idea of the historical significance and importance of the date to Black communities around the country. I decided to educate myself.
According to a New York Times article, (June 2, 2021) the Juneteenth holiday has its origins in Galveston Texas: “On June 19, 1865, about two months after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. General Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln.” A detailed history of the holiday is available on Juneteenth.com, which also tracks celebrations across the United States.
The observance of Juneteenth declined in the early 20th century with a resurgence in the mid-century. Then, in the state of Texas on January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Mr. Edwards actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth across America.
Juneteenth and the celebration of freedom continued to gain momentum, particularly following nationwide protests and demands for sweeping change and accountability over continued police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. Speaking after the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the death of Mr. Floyd, Mark Anthony Neal, an African American studies scholar at Duke University said, “The stakes are a little different … Many African Americans, Black Americans, feel as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard in a way across the culture. I think Juneteenth feels a … different now.”
This week, the United States acknowledged a history of enslavement, segregation, voter suppression, and systemic racism by making Juneteenth a national holiday. It’s a small step toward recognizing Black American history and commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.