Juneteenth Is in Full Swing. Do You Know What It Means?

An AP primer on the federal holiday's roots, meaning, and evolution
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 19, 2023 9:15 AM CDT
Celebrations Kick Off for 'Second Independence Day'
People hold a sign during a car parade to mark Juneteenth on June 19, 2021, in Inglewood, California.   (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Many Americans are celebrating Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in the United States learned they were free. For generations, Black Americans have recognized the end of one of the darkest chapters in US history with joy, in the form of parades, street festivals, musical performances, or cookouts. The US government was slow to embrace the occasion: It was only in 2021 that President Biden signed a bill passed by Congress to set aside Juneteenth, or June 19th, as a federal holiday, per the AP. And just as many people learn what Juneteenth is all about, the holiday's traditions are facing new pressures—political rhetoric condemning efforts to teach Americans about the nation's racial history, companies using the holiday as a marketing event, and people partying without understanding why. More on the federal holiday:

  • How did it start? The celebrations began with enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Although President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863, it couldn't be enforced in many places in the South until the Civil War ended in 1865. Even then, some white people who'd profited from their unpaid labor were reluctant to share the news. News that the war had ended and slaves were free finally reached Galveston when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in the Gulf Coast city on June 19, 1865, more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. Slavery was permanently abolished six months later, when Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment. The next year, the now-free people of Galveston started celebrating Juneteenth, an observance that has continued and spread around the world.

  • What does "Juneteenth" mean? It's a blend of the words "June" and "nineteenth." The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, Second Independence Day, and Emancipation Day. It began with church picnics and speeches, then spread as Black Texans moved elsewhere. Most US states now hold celebrations honoring Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia, Washington, and now Nevada. Hundreds of companies give workers the day off.
  • The evolution: The national reckoning over race ignited by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created. 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 divisions that are still simmering three years later. Now there's a movement to use the holiday as an opportunity for activism and education, with community service projects aimed at addressing racial disparities, and educational panels on topics such as health care inequities and the need for parks and green spaces.
  • Remembering what it's really about: Like most holidays, Juneteenth has also seen its fair share of commercialism. Retailers, museums, and other venues have capitalized on it by selling Juneteenth-themed T-shirts, party ware, and ice cream. Some of the marketing has misfired, provoking a social media backlash. Supporters of the holiday have worked to make sure Juneteenth celebrators don't forget why the day exists, or the sacrifices that were made for freedom in the United States—especially in these racially and politically charged days. Per 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 go backward."
(More Juneteenth stories.)

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