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What Is Juneteenth, The Holiday That Commemorates Emancipation?

Juneteenth, a combination of "June" and "19th," marks the day in 1865 that African-Americans enslaved in Texas, the most remote Confederate state, learned they were free.

By Connor Mannion
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Last week, President Donald Trump announced and then quickly rescheduled a political rally in Tulsa over protests he would hold a potentially divisive event on the day marking Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. 

Juneteenth, also known by the names "Freedom Day" and "Emancipation Day," is an American holiday prominent in Black communities that have celebrated it since the end of the Civil War — though it is less known in white communities.

The holiday has received new focus with the ongoing protests against racial injustice and police brutality that have taken hold across America in the wake of the deaths of African-Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks  — all of whom were killed by white police officers. 

What Is Juneteenth?

The holiday commemorates the date of June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved African-Americans that both the Civil War had ended and President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation — which granted freedom to all slaves in the secessionist states.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had actually taken effect more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, but it took time for news of it to reach slaves across the South. African-Americans in Texas, which was the most remote of the slave states, were the last to hear the news that they were free, according to historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Juneteenth – a combination of "June" and "19th," which is when it's celebrated – soon took hold as a holiday in Galveston and spread across Texas, and later the country. Celebrations did not begin immediately, however, as the threat of lynchings and violence from former slaveholders remained ominously present — but Gates noted African-Americans worked to pull together festivities by 1866, just one year later. 

"Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement," Juneteenth.com — which tracks celebrations of the holiday — states. "It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future."

How Is It Celebrated?

Early on, Juneteenth was celebrated "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," Gates wrote, also noting that, in the beginning, Juneteenth was most prominently celebrated as a local holiday in Texas. 

As befitting a holiday which has roots in Texas, barbecue and comfort food has featured heavily in Juneteenth celebrations since its inception, according to The New York Times.

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"A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today," Juneteenth.com noted. "Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations."

Nowadays, parades are commonly seen in Black communities from Pennsylvania to Texas to Wisconsin. In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. As of 2020, 47 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, according to CNBC.

However, despite both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump officially recognizing the holiday in annual statements, there has been little momentum toward an official federal designation.