Things to Know About Juneteenth

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill making June 19th—known as Juneteenth—a federal holiday. Although Juneteenth has been celebrated in African American communities since its inception over a century and a half ago, many white Americans only learned about it recently. If you’re among those still learning about the holiday and you’re not sure exactly what it’s about, keep reading. Here’s what everyone needs to know about Juneteenth history and the Juneteenth federal holiday.

What Is Juneteenth?

To comprehend the meaning of this holiday, it helps to understand a few things about Civil War history. You might know that the American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, and that it officially ended almost exactly four years later on April 9, 1865. This was the date on which Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. News traveled slowly and by letter in those days.

As a result, it wasn’t until two months afterward that Union General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas with about 2,000 Union troops to inform the community that the war was over and African Americans could no longer be legally enslaved. He arrived on June 19, 1865, and it’s on this day each year that Juneteenth is celebrated. Because it was the last place to learn the news, Galveston, Texas is considered the true birthplace of Juneteenth.

Why Is It Called Juneteenth?

To anyone unfamiliar with its history, the exact date indicated by “Juneteenth” might seem a little vague. As a reference to the date on which General Granger arrived in Galveston, it was coined as a simple combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth.” (When in doubt, remember that the last consonant in the former word is the first letter in the latter). 

Because Juneteenth is effectively America’s second independence day, the holiday is also known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” and “Emancipation Day.”

Key Things To Know About Juneteenth History

Here are some key things to know about the history around Juneteenth:

  • On the eve of January 1, 1863, which is the date the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, African Americans held gatherings in churches and homes waiting to hear that the law had taken effect. Churches continue to bear a strong symbolic connection with Juneteenth observances today.
  • After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Union soldiers traveled throughout the South reading copies of it to the public as they spread the news. Many of these soldiers were Black, a fact which must have made this process all the more empowering and joyful for these men and for the communities they liberated.
  • Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, making it effective immediately, the law could not actually be enforced in areas still under armed Confederate control as long as the war continued. Texas was the last standing state of the Confederacy, which is why enslaved African Americans in Galveston weren’t actually liberated until two years after the Proclamation was signed.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in Confederate states. Even though Juneteenth marks the day that the last remaining slaves in the final Confederate holdout were freed, slavery was not actually abolished as a matter of national policy until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today

Today, America’s second independence day is celebrated in many of the same ways as its first. Here are some of the most important elements of Juneteenth observances that have survived from 1865 to the present:

  • Church services. Faith and gospel music were deeply important for helping many Black Americans to endure slavery, particularly given the Biblical parallels with the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt. These cultural elements have continued to strengthen Black Christians through modern history as they have coped with systemic racism and racially motivated violence. For these reasons and others, church services form an integral part of Juneteenth celebrations. 
  • Cookouts. As they are for all Americans, cookouts are important communal events for Black Americans. They are joyful, relaxing, and comforting events that allow people to spend quality time with family, friends, loved ones, or even a whole neighborhood or town. For African Americans in particular, cookouts are events where people can be themselves and embrace parts of their cultural identity that white Americans may not understand.
  • Parades and festivals. Just as there are July 4th parades and festivals, so there are for Juneteenth as well. These events are elaborate official celebrations that connect people across entire cities and geographic regions.
  • Music. It’s hard to have a major celebration without music, especially since music has the power to express what words cannot. Particularly on an occasion that is both so solemn and so joyful, concerts are an excellent way to help communities tap into all the complex emotions to which Juneteenth gives rise.

Celebrate Juneteenth With ARCC

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