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Juneteenth is a special celebration on June 19th that commemorates the end of the United States’ historic practice of slavery. In this sense, Juneteenth is a day for honoring the “freedom” of all people living in the United States.
Whether you grew up celebrating Juneteenth or have never heard of it, here’s what you need to know about Juneteenth’s meaning, how the holiday came to be and why it matters to so many people.
Many people think of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863) as the official end of slavery. And while that’s not entirely untrue, many African descendants remained enslaved for several years after the proclamation was made. That’s because Lincoln’s decree was primarily intended to preserve the Union rather than to abolish slavery.
In an open letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, Lincoln stated, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.”
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” Famous for his honesty, Lincoln clearly viewed his decree more as a political tool than a means of liberation.
Its impact bears that out. Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” This meant that the proclamation only applied to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery intact in border states and Southern states under Northern control. In addition, the promise of abolition that Juneteenth celebrates today was contingent on the Union army winning the Civil War, which didn’t happen until April 1865.
But here’s where Juneteenth’s meaning comes into play: Even after the end of slavery was declared, the Union had to enforce emancipation. In Texas, approximately 250,000 people were still being held in slavery when, on June 19, 1865, Union troops led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to announce that the war had ended and that all of the enslaved were now free.
Although slavery wouldn’t legally end in all states until the December 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, June 19 — the day that became known as Juneteenth — was the day when the last enslaved people in America were freed, resulting in massive celebrations.
How do people celebrate Juneteenth?
In 1866, the year after Granger’s order, the first Juneteenth anniversary celebration happened. Since then, celebrations in certain regions of the United States have continued the tradition of honoring this important day. In 1872, a group of formerly enslaved people put together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land in Houston, Texas, for the city’s annual Juneteenth celebrations. They named the space Emancipation Park, and it plays host to Juneteenth celebrations even now.
In the wake of the 2020 racial justice uprisings, a growing number of companies decided to honor Juneteenth as an annual holiday for employees. It has also crept into mainstream media recently, with ABC’s Black-ish and FX’s Atlanta both featuring episodes that prominently celebrate it. In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, and, as of the time of this writing in 2021, 45 states and Washington, D.C., recognize the day as a state holiday.
Despite a lack of federal recognition, the holiday has lived on through rich traditions. Every year since the first Juneteenth occurred, small pockets of the United States have erupted in celebration on June 19th. But everyone has a different idea of how to celebrate Juneteenth. You might see grand parades or neighborhood gatherings, lively celebrations in the form of festivals with local bands playing, storytelling, picnics, and a Juneteenth staple — barbecues. Traditionally, red drinks and red foods are a must at these barbecues, with red symbolizing resilience.
Why does Juneteenth matter?
Juneteenth’s history represents the good and the bad in what makes the United States the country it is: it’s symbolic of liberation, but one that was delayed due to consistent opposition and resistance to equality that is deeply rooted in white supremacy — something that all too often feels very American.
After all, what is freedom when you’re seen and treated as subhuman? From the original Juneteenth to the present day, Black people have endured a continuous fight for equality and a different kind of freedom.
“Today’s political climate is the result of a concerted effort over many years to teach individuals a revised history: that the system of slavery was related to state’s rights, when in fact it was a treasonous act that this nation must not revisit. One of the ways we can prevent another uprising of a treasonous act [like slavery] is to recognize milestones like Juneteenth,” president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, tells Teen Vogue. “I think the significance and purpose of recognizing Juneteenth is something that all citizens should acknowledge because, if there is not a retelling or remembrance of the true history in this nation, we’re doomed to repeat it.”
In a country that prides itself on being the “land of the free,” this is just one of our many national contradictions and hypocrisies, another one of which is, notably, right around the corner: The 4th of July. It’s a day meant to celebrate when America declared independence from the British in 1776 and is referred to as “Independence Day,” despite the fact that black Americans weren’t even considered to be people at that time.
“This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” said Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, during an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”
As Douglass expertly laid out, that day of “independence” does not mark liberation for all. What Juneteenth symbolizes is a true day of freedom. That’s something worth celebrating, and continuing to fight for — not just among Black folks, but among everyone.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in June 2019.