Juneteenth: What to Know About the Most Important Day in American History

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Juneteenth has been an official American holiday for more than 150 years. But in 2020, as protests sweep the nation in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans, Juneteenth’s meaning is as relevant as ever.

June 19, 2020 marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, which commemorated the end of slavery in the United States. This year’s Juneteenth comes amid the Black Lives Matter movement and marches across the world in protest of police brutality and systemic racial discrimination and violence against Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Juneteenth isn’t a new holiday, especially for Black Americans who have been celebrating it for decades, but it does come at a pivotal point in American history. Here’s what to know about it.

What is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to proclaim that all slaves in Texas were now free. Though the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that ended slavery in the United States, was issued by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years earlier on January 1, 1863, it wasn’t until Granger’s arrival in Texas in 1865 that the final enslaved Black Americans were informed of their freedom. Given that Texas had a low Union military presence was the most remote state that had slaves, enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation was slow, which is why slaves in Texas were the last to know about their freedom.

Since then, June 19th has been referred to as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” and “Emancipation Day” in honor of the final slaves learning of their freedom after the Confederate States were defeated and the American Civil War had officially ended in April 1865.

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How is Juneteenth celebrated? 

Celebrations of Juneteenth date back to 1866 with church gatherings among Black Americans in Texas. After that Juneteenth celebrations spread to other Southern states, with food festivals as one of the more popular festivities in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Time magazine. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations resurged with an emphasis on Black arts.

Now, in the 21st century, Juneteenth is celebrated in most big cities across the United States with local festivities. Among Juneteenth traditions are public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as singing songs with importance to Black History such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” according to Juneteenth.com. Other celebrations include readings of notable Black writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, as well as historical reenactments, street fairs, rodeos, cookouts and other parties. Some big cities, such as Atlanta and Washington D.C., also host larger events, such as parades and festivals with musical performances and Miss Juneteenth contests.

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Where is Juneteenth a holiday?

In 1980, Texas became the first state to officialize Juneteenth as a state holiday. After Texas, 45 other states (as well as Washington D.C.) have recognized Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday, with others to come. On Tuesday, June 16, the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, proposed legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday for Virginia residents. New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Wednesday, June 17, that Juneteenth would also be a holiday for state employees. Companies such as Twitter, Target, Best Buy, and the National Football League have also declared that Juneteenth would be a paid holiday for employees.

While Juneteenth isn’t a federal holiday yet, there’s an increase in calls to make Juneteenth a U.S. national holiday. In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” but the resolution has yet to reach the White House.

“RT if you think Congress should make Juneteenth a national holiday,” Jamaal Bowman, a candidate for a New York state congress, wrote in a tweet that’s been retweeted more than 200,000 times.

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