• Cam Humphrey

American History 101: The Significance of Juneteenth

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

UPDATE: U.S. Senators have introduced legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Democrats introduce bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday (report by NBC News)

June 19th, 1865, is a day etched into the history of America. Union Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 Union Army troops traveled into Galveston, Texas, to deliver the news of freedom. While President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the notable executive order that “freed” slaves two years prior, his executive order had little impact due to the small Union presence in Texas and the rest of the American South. With the surrender of Confederate General Robert Lee in April 1865, the Union forces finally had the strength to enforce the law and bring news of the end to the Civil War. Not only did it signal a Union victory, but it also meant the end of slavery.

Once the news was received in Galveston, it quickly spread. The formerly enslaved are documented receiving the news with immediate jubilation. In a single moment, the shackles of involuntary servitude were broken, and a new horizon of freedom began to rise; however, the road ahead would not be easy. Freedom would not equate with equality, nor would it ensure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for Americans with black skin. Slavery was followed by the advent of Jim Crow laws and staunch segregation practices that would last nearly a century – both designed to maintain to the status quo of racial hierarchy in America.

June 19th, 1865, has since been coined “Juneteenth” – a time for Americans of all races to celebrate freedom, and to reflect on the significance of slavery and its impact on the nation’s ethos. The significance of the day has grown and declined over the years, becoming at times much more than a day of remembrance, and at others a mere afterthought. As traditional history books left out the details of the Union’s arrival in Galveston, the impact of the day was not commonly known or acknowledged. As a result, many employers became less inclined to grant leave for the occasion, and Juneteenth became nothing more than another regular day.

The Civil Rights Movement brought a subtle resurgence of Juneteenth, as it connected the fight for voting rights, racial equality, and justice with the historical struggles of the enslaved. During that time, many Americans became more attuned with their history and began to acknowledge the significance of Juneteenth as a holiday. In 1979, Texas legislator Albert Edwards introduced and passed legislation to make Juneteenth an official, paid state holiday. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday or day of observance. Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only states that do not formally recognize Juneteenth.

President Obama acknowledged the significance of Juneteenth each year of his presidency, and President Trump has referenced it as well. Trump recently rescheduled a June 19th campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, out of respect for the Juneteenth holiday, stating that "it's actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” Acknowledgment, however, has been the final stop, as efforts to establish Juneteenth a federal holiday have stifled in Congress. There are current discussions about establishing “Juneteenth” as a federal holiday before June 2021.

For now, those who celebrate the holiday can acknowledge it through the many commemorative celebrations taking place around the country. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Buffalo are home to the nation’s largest annual Juneteenth festivals. While the coronavirus pandemic has muffled official celebrations and gatherings this year, some Alabama cities are moving forward with organized events with strict social distancing measures. As the fight of racial equality continues across the country, Juneteenth celebrations are likely to be incorporated into protests, marches, and demonstrations taking place this weekend.

Want to see Juneteenth become a national holiday? NextGen America is circulating an online petition calling on Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national day of observance. Link here: https://nextgenamerica.org/act/2020-juneteenth/

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