Home Politics What Is Juneteenth? – The Story Behind Black Independence Day

What Is Juneteenth? – The Story Behind Black Independence Day

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We all love a good federal holiday if it means the chance for a long weekend away from work and to indulge in some fun celebrations. Many of the holidays celebrated each year have been around for a long time. But, there is one that only joined the list in 2021.

Juneteenth has been a widespread African-American holiday since the time of emancipation and, more recently, a state holiday across much of the country. So, there is the possibility you have celebrated in some capacity before. However, it is now officially a federal holiday on the same level as Independence Day. So, what is Juneteenth, how did the holiday come about, and how can we celebrate?

The History of Juneteenth

At its heart, Juneteenth is the day when African-Americans celebrate their own Independence Day. It stems from the date when Texas finally achieved emancipation in 1865, and the last slaves of the Confederacy were free. Since then, Texas has celebrated it each year, and the holiday has grown in stature across the nation. In 2021, it became a national federal holiday.

Historical painting
Juneteenth has been celebrated by African-Americans since the emancipation of the slaves in the United States.

This idea of Juneteenth being an independence day celebration is just part of the story here. There is much more to this day as people celebrate in various ways and make this an even more symbolic day for African-Americans. The emancipation process wasn’t that straightforward, and slavery and equal rights issues continued from there.

So, before we head out to enjoy any Juneteenth celebration on a day off this year, it is good to know more about the history of the day and what to expect. For a start, there is the question of why the date of emancipation in the Confederate state of Texas took so long after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Then there are the deeper issues of civil rights, slavery, and the 13th Amendment around that time. As for how to celebrate, what should we know about the day’s traditions and what people of other races can do to be a part of it? Before all that, let’s look at how this became a holiday in the first place.

Turning Juneteenth Into a Federal Holiday

There are lots of names for this day. Some may refer to it as Emancipation Day or Black Independence Day, depending on their celebrations and where they are. The official name is Juneteenth National Independence Day, but that is a little long, so Juneteenth is the more common term as a portmanteau for the date.

Juneteenth has only recently become a national holiday. It was recognized on June 17th, 2021, allowing for the first official national celebration two days later, as President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Therefore, at the time of writing, there has only been one official federal version of this holiday. Before June of 2021, the date was already a holiday, but not a federal one. So, while government employees couldn’t get the day off, they could still celebrate across the nation.

The origins of the holiday go back a lot further than you might expect. The first was held in Galveston, Texas, in 1866, and Texas was the center of celebrations for a long time to come. So, why June 19th, and why Texas?

Why Choose June 19th As Emancipation Day? 

June 19th initially sounds like an odd choice for a national holiday to celebrate emancipation. Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation came on January 1st of, 1863. This called for the end of slavery in the United States and the start of a better future for African Americans. So, you may wonder why we don’t have a national holiday here.

Marting Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. is honored in mid-January each year with a federal holiday.

There are two reasons. First of all, this is already New Year’s Day and a federal holiday for those celebrating the start of a new year. More importantly, although emancipation was proclaimed, it wasn’t fully realized until June 19th, 1865. It took states a while to fall in line, for one reason or another, and freeing slaves was more complex. 

Why Texas? 

The location of this original holiday is significant because while the Emancipation Proclamation called for the freedom of all enslaved people across the United States, it took time for all states to comply fully and for every black American to be free. It wasn’t until June 19th, 1865, that Texas finally acquiesced. 

Union Army General Gordon Granger gave a general order on this day, hence using this date in later celebrations. As the last state in the Confederacy to give up slavery, this moment was monumental on a wider scale and why we now celebrate Juneteenth as Emancipation Day rather than the date of the proclamation.

Why was Texas so late to grant Emancipation?

A big question here is why it took so long for the people of Texas to learn of their freedom. It was two and half years between Lincoln’s official proclamation and the announcement to the people of Texas by the general on June 19th. This is incredibly slow, even for the period.

Photo of Lincoln Memorial
President Abraham Lincoln signaled his intent to end slavery in the United States with the Proclamation of Emancipation.

It wasn’t uncommon for news to travel slowly in the 1800s simply because of the lack of technology and the time for written words to physically reach people in other states. It is easy to take for granted that we can know everything instantly and beam information around the world in seconds. Today, a presidential address could be live-streamed or tweeted out to anyone across the world with a good wifi signal. 

Back then, those in remote areas had to wait for official news by letter or newspapers. The postal system could only do so much. Still, two and half years is a long time to be in the dark about the proclamation, especially when all states were in the process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. 

Was Texas merely cut off or feigning ignorance about the Proclamation?

Texas, at the time, was very difficult to reach because of poor transportation routes in the state. This meant that it took a long time for anything or anyone to get from the south to the north-eastern center of the country. The postal service ended in 1861 when the state announced its secession from the Union to make matters worse. The addition of Union blockades for Confederacy mail systems meant that Texas was virtually cut off. So, the region was left in a state of ignorance over what was happening elsewhere. 

As other states freed their slaves, Texas was able to keep the tradition going. This added benefit for the slave-owners leads to speculation that word had actually reached the state much sooner. The plantation owners simply found a way to stop any public proclamations in the state. 

Those in higher positions of power may have found a way to silence the truth as long as they possibly could for their own gain. They would reap the financial rewards of another harvest or simply show defiance to the Union, forcing them to return to the Union or free the slaves. 

Without the public proclamation and with a state of apparent ignorance, they didn’t have to do either. 

Of course, the truth couldn’t be withheld forever. On June 19th, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with around 200 Union troops to deliver the message and ensure that emancipation would be upheld.

Was Texas the last state to end slavery?

This is where there is another curiosity to the story of the end of slavery in America. Black Independence Day focused on the date when the Emancipation process was fully realized across the Confederacy. The Confederate South is seen as the tyrant and pro-slavery area of the nation when looking back at the era and the Civil War. There is also no doubt that this was a significant moment when Texas meant that the whole Confederacy was now free.

However, this overlooks the fact that slavery was in place in the Union too. There were slave-owners here, and laws in place that had to change. Delaware and Kentucky still maintained that slavery was legal after the fall of the Confederacy. Also, the proclamation invited Confederate states to rejoin the Union or face the loss of slavery.

Should Black Independence Day Fall on December 6th Instead?

The official end of slavery in the United States across all states – Union or Confederate – came about on December 6th, 1865. This was when the 27th of the required 36 states ratified the 13th Amendment. This amendment ensured that the Constitution now enshrined that slavery and involuntary servitude would be abolished, except as a punishment for a crime. This meant that Delaware and Kentucky had to end any laws still in place. 

The process of the 13th Amendment took place as the Confederacy gradually saw slavery come to an end across the states. It had been passed by both houses of Congress before the Juneteenth emancipation in Texas, on January 31st of that year. The original proposition in the Senate came much earlier, on April 8th, 1864. But, the process of ratification meant that it took a little longer for the amendment to pass. 

Many states did so in February, very soon after the bill passed Congress. Impressively, Illinois did so the very next day. But, others rejected the amendment at first. At this point, it didn’t matter for the bill’s progress as the majority was already in place. However, Kentucky, Delaware, New Jersey, and Mississippi all opposed it at first. Kentucky wouldn’t ratify until 1976, and Mississippi as recently as 1995.

The End of Slavery in the United States

Of course, the story of black oppression in the United States doesn’t end with the moment that slavery was abolished. There were many loopholes in the law that meant that while no man could be held in involuntary servitude, they could be kept as poorly-paid workers in similar conditions and roles. There were freemen working on plantations with little change in circumstances after the passing of the 13th amendment. 

Meanwhile, divisions between white and black Americans continued with widespread discrimination, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. There was also the fact that no free Black man in the Union had any right to citizenship at this point. There was freedom to a point, and more work was needed to obtain equality and civil rights.

The Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t come until one hundred years after the emancipation of the slaves. Texan citizens held their 100th Juneteenth celebration just one year after the Voting Rights Act passed and segregation ended.

The Growth of Juneteenth Celebration in America

The first Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas, the year after freedom was finally granted to the slaves. While Texas has seen Juneteenth celebrations since the days of emancipation, it was only awarded the status of a state holiday in 1980.

Over time, these celebrations grew, with more and more black communities taking the time to honor the days in various ways. The spread of the holiday is linked with the migration of free black Americans, who took the customs into new communities and spread the word about the celebrations.

For a long time, the “unofficial holiday” meant that many African-Americans would celebrate in their own time and take time off work as time owed, rather than having the day automatically assigned as a holiday. Many have felt that unfair as there are national celebrations for Independence Day, but there was nothing for Black Independence Day. Why should Juneteenth be any less of an event given its similar historical significance for those involved? Still, in 2020, there were states that didn’t recognize it as a state holiday. New York only did so that year.

How to celebrate Juneteenth

As with many grand-scale American celebrations, a lot of the emphasis of this big day lies on food and drink. Families are sure to have their own traditions when it comes to the meals made and the size of the gathering. Some will go for old family recipes, and others a good old-fashioned Texas cook-out. There is also a trend for drinking red drinks that serve to honor those that suffered during slavery and gave their blood before future generations could be free.

Many events will also have a religious aspect to the day, with services in churches and prayers. Still, it is a widely secular occasion for different faiths where anyone can celebrate the anniversary of emancipation. This means many community events such as food and music festivals, carnivals, and more.

The great thing about this day and the wider federal celebrations is that anyone can join in any way they want. Those within black communities may take the time to put on a more lavish celebration in a local neighborhood or to set up a parade in a town. In contrast, others may keep things more low-key with a family dinner and acts of remembrance for the ancestors that came before them and perhaps worked on the land in the state.

How to celebrate Juneteenth if you are white

This is something that those new to the concept of Juneteenth may struggle with. What can white people, or those of other races, do to share in the festivities respectfully. The last thing anyone wants to do is intrude on something that is so symbolic for the black community or do anything akin to cultural appropriation. Yet, there is something poignant in people coming together to celebrate this day like they would the Fourth of July. 

If there are community events with open invitations or public events such as parades and festivals, go along and see what’s happening. This day is also a good opportunity for anyone to show their support for African-Americans and their continued struggles for equality and recognition. The decision to make Juneteenth a national holiday follows the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing movements for greater equality. So, this day can be as much about championing those causes as celebrating emancipation. 

It is also a good opportunity for people to educate themselves on the history of Juneteenth, slavery, and other civil rights matters. There is a good chance that with this being such a new occasion in some areas, some demographics and younger residents may not realize what Juneteenth is all about. They may perhaps know it as Black Independence Day but aren’t so well educated on the details of the emancipation process and the 13th Amendment. This holiday is as much a chance to gain knowledge and celebrate black culture. 

Also, there is the trend to use the day to support people of African-American descent rather than white-owned businesses or major names. This could be an independent store or restaurant in your area that could benefit from your business. Or, it might be a good opportunity to discover some black creatives making music, art, film, and more.

The Juneteenth Flag

Another tradition of the day is the raising of the Juneteenth flag. You may see this at people’s houses and possibly from government buildings now that this is a national holiday. The flag was devised in 1997 to mark Juneteenth. Recent revisions of the flag design include text for the original Juneteenth date of 1865.

It has the traditional colors of red, white, and blue, as seen on the national flag, and also has links to the flag of Texas. There is a white star on a background of navy blue on the top and red underneath. Instead of two solid rectangles as on most flags, there is a curved line to represent a new horizon for those represented. There is a starburst effect around it.

This is not the only flag that you will see on Juneteenth. Others will raise the standard American flag, and there is also the chance of seeing the Pan-African flag. This is a tricolor flag with horizontal red, black, and green bands. This is a significant symbol for African-American communities and is also known as the Black Liberation Flag. There are also examples of flags where people have taken the design of the national flag and used these Pan-African colors instead.

Juneteenth 2022

Juneteenth 2022 is sure to have some extra significance following the pandemic. While it was a federal holiday last year, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on social events and gatherings are sure to have had an impact. Many families would have held get-togethers over Zoom rather than travel to be together, and the parades and other community events wouldn’t have been the same.

This year, with more and more people, triple vaccinated and the country getting back to normal. This means bigger social occasions, so this is sure to be the grand Juneteenth celebration people have been waiting for.

The Significance of Juneteenth

Juneteenth is more than just a date to mark the end of slavery for African-Americans in the United States. This date is significant in the shift away from slave-ownership in the Confederacy, but the history of slavery and civil rights is complicated. Instead, Juneteenth is more about the need to build a nationally recognized day of celebration of African-American communities and their independence. 

The Juneteenth date makes as much sense as many others in the period of emancipation and the 13th Amendment. But, it stuck because this is the day that the community of Galveston chose as their celebration and has continued to savor every year since. Keeping the Juneteenth date honors them and their ancestors. 

Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, the impact and cultural significance can only grow as it becomes a platform for larger events and black voices to reach a larger audience.

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