What is Juneteenth?

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Nearly 155 years ago, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves they were free.

The day would go down in history as “Juneteenth,” which is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to Juneteenth.com.

The holiday, which is celebrated annually on June 19, is a portmanteau that gets its name from the combination of June and Nineteen.

In recent weeks, the day has made headlines as protests have unfolded around the world following the May 25 death of George Floyd, which ignited a renewed conversation about police brutality and social injustices in America.

As a sign of solidarity and support for the black community, a number of companies, including Target, Twitter, and the NFL, have moved to recognize “Juneteenth” as a paid company holiday.

“This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday, June 19th as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “It is a day to reflect on our past, but more importantly, consider how each one of us can continue to show up and band together to work toward a better future.”

President Trump announced Friday he was moving the date of his first campaign rally so that it won’t conflict with the Juneteenth observance. The president received backlash last week for scheduling the rally for June 19 in Tulsa Oklahoma, the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, where mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses in a thriving African American community known as the Greenwood District. Hundreds of people were killed.

What is Juneteenth?

According to History.com, on June 19, 1865, Granger and roughly 2,000 bluecoats landed in Galveston, Texas to inform enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free.

Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Galveston. It stated:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The news came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had already died and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was close to being ratified.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, it was not enforced in Texas until the Union took control of the state. Slave owners in some states had migrated west to Texas, a Confederate stronghold, and brought thousands of slaves with them. Historians say there were no major Civil War battles in Texas, therefore slaves were unable to seek shelter behind Union lines. They claim many Texas slaveowners hid news of the proclamation from those they enslaved.

Texas remained a Confederate stronghold until General Robert E. Lee eventually surrendered to the Union Army on April 9, 1865. Various Confederate armies and militia forces surrendered between April 16 and June 28, 1865.

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

In 1866, freed slaves in Texas organized the first annual celebration of “Jubilee Day” on June 19.

The celebration included prayer services and church gatherings, and over time, it would evolve.

African-American historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that Juneteenth became: “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.”

Over the next century, the holiday would spread across the South and the rest of the United States. But as many concur, the holiday has gone largely unnoticed in the majority of the country, and is rarely mentioned in school curricula. 

“This monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans,” the National Museum of African American History & Culture notes.

Is it a national holiday?

Now, all but four states, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or day of recognition.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear on Thursday signed a proclamation to recognize Juneteenth. He is also calling on state lawmakers to make it a state holiday. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker also issued a proclamation Friday recognizing Juneteenth.

U.S. Senator from Indiana Todd Young released this statement on a resolution passed in the U.S. Senate officially designating June 19 as Juneteenth Independence Day:

“Today, we recognize the 155th anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States. This historic day reminds us how far America has come in the fight for equality and how far we still have left to go. As we continue to heal our nation’s wounds, we must work together to repair trust and address remaining challenges that continue to affect black Americans.”

Sen. Todd Young
(R) Indiana

Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980.

For years, activists have been campaigning for the United States to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. While the US Senate passed a resolution in 2018 that would designate June 19 as ‘‘Juneteenth Independence Day,” it died in the House.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and other lawmakers have recently expressed support for the movement.

A Change.org petition, Make Juneteenth a National Holiday in 2020, has nearly 300,000 signatures.

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