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What Is Juneteenth and Why Is It Important?

Discover the cultural celebration behind the historic anniversary.

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  • A band performs in Texas on Juneteenth, 1900.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Juneteenth was offically recognized as a federal holiday for the first time in 2021. For some people who had never heard of it before, discussions about the holiday seemed to have popped up out of nowhere. While this important anniversary has been around for quite some time, widespread recognition for it has not. So what is its true significance, and how did the celebration first begin?

On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had come to an end and that the enslaved people of Texas were now free. Four years of national in-fighting had ceased, resulting in the abolishment of slavery and newfound freedom for Black individuals in America.

Though President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier, that did not mean that slaves across all states had automatically been freed. The proclamation indicated that all states of the Confederacy—excepting those parts not in rebellion—were required to free their slaves. But actual enforcement of this law relied heavily upon the advancement of Union troops.

Texas was the farthest state within the Confederacy, and it had actually seen an expansion of slavery during the Civil War years, rather than an end. However, as Union soldiers arrived in Texas, there were finally enough troops to enforce the new executive order despite the resistance of white slave owners.

While there were still many challenges to be faced by Black Americans in the coming years, this widespread acknowledgement of emancipation was cause for celebration for the freed slaves. Some African Americans migrated north in search of "true freedom," with others traveling far and wide to track down and reconnect with family. 

Annually, June 19th became a day for former slaves to gather together and pray, holding special significance in Texas for decades after the end of the war. The celebration was eventually dubbed "Juneteenth," and as the descendants of the strong-willed individuals who weathered the deplorable institution of slavery grew, so too did participation in the observance of this important anniversary.

But why has such a pivotal moment in the course of American history gone overlooked by mainstream media for so long? And why is it gaining even more traction as a celebration now?

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Even after slaves were freed, institutionalized racism was obviously still alive and well after 1865. Jim Crow laws emerged in the South to enforce racial segregation, and persisted until a century after the end of the Civil War. This status quo of the racial divide meant that very few people outside of the Black community knew about or cared to partake in the celebration of Juneteenth. Beyond ignoring the holiday, there were some instances of white Americans actively hindering the celebrations by barring use of public property to gather for Juneteenth.

The Black community wasn't going to be stopped, however. Instead of using public facilities, those looking to celebrate Juneteenth often held their celebrations at their churches, or at rural locales near rivers and creeks that provided opportunities for fun activities like fishing, horseback riding, and barbecues.

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Juneteenth gained more traction as African Americans became landowners. Those who could purchase land would, on occasion, donate it for the purpose of holding Juneteenth festivities. One of the first instances of this was in 1872, when Reverand Jack Yates led a fundraising effort to purchase Houston's Emancipation Park.

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  • 1905 Juneteenth celebration in Richmond, Virginia.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In the 1920s and 30s, Juneteenth was commercialized as it gained a bigger following across the South, with celebrations centered around food festivals. While the Great Migration of Black individuals from the South between 1910 and 1970 meant that Juneteenth celebrations spread wider across the country, celebrations were overshadowed by the nonviolent efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. However, following the strides made in that human rights battle, the popularity of Juneteenth boomed once more in the 70s, this time with a greater national focus on African American art and culture.

Related: 34 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know

On January 1st, 1980, Juneteenth was recognized in Texas as an official state holiday. This was thanks to the efforts of African American legislator Al Edwards. Edwards then turned his attention to bringing this statewide recognition to the rest of America.

Juneteenth saw recognition across eight states by 2002. That number nearly doubled within four years. In 2008, nearly half of the states in America ceremonially observed Juneteenth. Every state except for South Dakota eventually recognized this vital anniversary. On June 17th of 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

While Juneteenth commemorates a massive victory for the enslaved African American people of the mid-19th century, today this anniversary has expanded to encompass a celebration of Black culture. The holiday celebrates the freedom and achievements of Black Americans, and embraces with pride the clothing, food, music, spirituality, art, and other cultural aspects unique to the Black community.

As people of all races and origins will benefit from a day off for the federal holiday this year, it's important to keep the holiday's true meaning in mind. Registering to vote to support anti-racist and equal rights legislature, donating to charities that cater to vulnerable members of the Black community and aid racial justice activists, supporting Black businesses and artists, and being mindful of your personal impact within the world all go a long way.