Today is Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth celebrates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas — the last enslaved Black people in the U.S. — learned they were free. It was more than two months after the Civil War ended, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
The holiday received its name by combining June and 19. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Black people across the country have celebrated the anniversary for more than 140 years, making it the oldest African-American holiday observance in the U.S.
The original celebration became an annual one, and it grew in popularity over the years with the addition of descendants, according to Juneteenth.com, which tracks celebrations. The day was celebrated by praying and bringing families together. In some celebrations on this day, men and women who had been enslaved, and their descendants, made an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston.
Celebrations reached new heights in 1872, when a group of African-American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park. The space was intended to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.
Leaders of several of America’s largest corporations have recently pledged that they would make Juneteenth a paid holiday, while others stated that they would observe it.
“Both Twitter and Square are making #Juneteenth (June 19th) a company holiday in the U.S., forevermore. A day for celebration, education and connection,” said Jack Dorsey, the chief executive and a founder of Twitter and Square.
Pennsylvania and 46 other states now recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but efforts to make it a national holiday have stalled in Congress.
Today, cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington hold larger events such as parades and festivals with residents, local businesses and more.
This year’s celebration may resonate in new ways, given the sweeping changes and widespread protests across the country. The holiday takes special significance as African-Americans grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other African Americans this year.
Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies scholar at Duke University, said there are some comparisons between the end of the Civil War and current unrest, adding that this moment feels like a “rupture.”
“The stakes are a little different,” Neal said. “Many African Africans, Black Americans, feel as if this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard in a way across the culture.
“I think Juneteenth feels a little different now,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”
Amid a global pandemic and protests, commemorating a holiday may seem less important, but considering the origins and meaning of Juneteenth, we should commemorate this day.