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Juneteenth: The Journey from Freedom to a National Holiday

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The history of Juneteenth, a day marking the end of slavery in the United States, is a testament to the resilience and perseverance of African Americans. Officially recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and the freedom of all enslaved people.

The roots of Juneteenth trace back to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. While the proclamation declared that all enslaved people in Confederate states were free, its enforcement largely depended on the presence of Union troops. Texas, the most remote of the slave states, saw minimal Union presence, allowing slavery to persist until General Gordon Granger’s arrival in Galveston with his troops.

On June 19, 1865, General Granger issued General Order No. 3, which informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free. The order 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.”

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

The news of freedom sparked spontaneous celebrations among the newly freed African Americans, who embraced the day as a moment of jubilation and reflection. The following year, on June 19, 1866, the first official Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas, featuring community gatherings, barbecues, prayer services, and musical performances. Over time, these celebrations spread to other states, becoming an annual tradition.

Despite its significance, Juneteenth remained largely unknown to many Americans outside of African American communities for decades. Efforts to promote and recognize the day gained momentum during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference highlighted the importance of acknowledging the struggles and triumphs of African Americans.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Juneteenth experienced a resurgence in popularity, driven by a growing awareness of African American history and culture. Several states, including Texas, began to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. Advocacy for federal recognition intensified, particularly following the nationwide protests against racial injustice in 2020.

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. During the signing ceremony, President Biden remarked, “By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history. We commemorate the long journey to freedom and celebrate the resilience and contributions of African Americans.”

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated nationwide with a variety of events and activities, including parades, educational programs, and cultural exhibitions. It serves as a time for reflection on the past, recognition of the progress made, and a reminder of the work that remains in the pursuit of equality and justice.

Juneteenth’s journey from a regional celebration to a national holiday underscores the enduring spirit of African Americans and their continuous fight for freedom and equality. As the country honors Juneteenth, it acknowledges a significant chapter in its history, reminding all Americans of the importance of understanding and addressing the legacy of slavery and systemic racism.

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