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Unsung Heroes Black Lives Matter

How Juneteenth, America's Newest Recognized Federal Holiday, Is Being Celebrated Across The U.S.

Juneteenth commemorates the very first day in which all Black Americans in formerly Confederate territories knew that they were free people.

By Gina Tron
Juneteenth Parade Getty

Juneteenth is America’s newest federal holiday and major celebrations are underway across the country to commemorate its deep meaning to the progression of our nation's civil rights.

June 19 became America’s 12th federal holiday in 2021 after President Joe Biden signed a bill to honor it as such. It's the first federal holiday to be established since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became the country’s 11th federal holiday.

Juneteenth marks the end of chattel slavery in the United States. It commemorates the anniversary of the public announcement in the final place in Texas that hadn't heard of the emancipation of enslaved Americans in formerly Confederate states and territories. 

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take command of Union troops in the area and tell the enslaved Black Americans that both the Civil War had ended and that they had been freed. He announced that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which granted freedom to all enslaved people in the secessionist states. Texas was the last Confederate state where the end of slavery was announced.

Though Juneteenth is often said to mark the very first day when all Black Americans were first free people across the entire nation, enslaved people in the Union states were not freed under the Emancipation Proclamation and two Union states had not outlawed slavery by the end of the Civil War: Kentucky and Delaware. Enslaved people in those states were officially emancipated when the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

The holiday has been gaining an increasing amount of traction in recent years, even before it became an official federal holiday. It particular gained in popularity after the mass 2020 protests against racial injustice in response to the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

That movement seemingly helped push Juneteenth toward an official holiday status. 

One important location where Juneteenth will be celebrated this year is in the state where the holiday began.

Civil rights leader Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas had been fighting to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday for decades. Her dream was first partially realized in 2020 when she collected 1.5 million signatures on a petition to turn it into a holiday. Her hometown is an epicenter of Juneteenth celebrations.

Fort Worth will play host to the 2.5-mile Opal's Walk for Freedom to commemorate part of her historic work: When she was 90, she walked from Fort Worth through Arlington, Grand Prairie and Dallas. Eventually,  “a change was made to go where she was invited" and she began to walk 2.5 miles "representing the years it took for enforcement of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas and free the slaves there.” 

The city’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art will also be hosting new exhibit "Black Every Day” in honor of the holiday. Young Black women can also participate in the annual Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant.

In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting a few Juneteenth events, including the live panel discussion, "One Year Later: Juneteenth for All Americans." 

In Montgomery, Alabama, the Rosa Parks Museum will host the 7th Annual Juneteenth Celebration on June 18 with free admission. That same day, the city’s Riverwalk Amphitheater will host Global African Diaspora Heritage Day, which will feature various relevant spoken word, theater, crafts, poetry and literature.

Atlanta, Georgia —where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, — will be loaded with Juneteenth festivities. This year marks the 10th annual Juneteenth Atlanta Parade & Music Festival in Centennial Olympic Park., where attendees can enjoy around 300 Black-owned booths as well as historical reenactments.There will also be plenty of free events and concerts around the city.

While the recognition of Juneteenth is a step forward, it’s also an overdue one. Most Americans weren't aware of the holiday or its meaning until recently, and a day off gives them a good moment to read up on the meaning behind the newly recognized date.