Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

What you need to know about Juneteenth and why we are now all celebrating

Newly emancipated black Texans first celebrated Juneteenth 156 years ago. We should all celebrate today.

Chi Oriji of the Atlantic City Carnival leads the group in the winin dance during the Juneteenth Parade, recognizing the end of slavery in America, along East Market Street in 2018.
Chi Oriji of the Atlantic City Carnival leads the group in the winin dance during the Juneteenth Parade, recognizing the end of slavery in America, along East Market Street in 2018.Read more Yong Kim / File Photograph

The insistence that Black lives, and by extension Black history, be taken seriously is why, I think, legislators made Juneteenth — the oldest American holiday to commemorate the end of slavery — an official federal holiday this week.

And let me just say, it’s about time.

Not only will Black Americans mark the day with parades, festivals, and cookouts, but hopefully white America will also take a moment to reflect, not just on the emancipation of the enslaved, but on other important moments in Black history like the 1920 Tulsa Massacre, Knoxville’s Red Summer of 1919, and Philadelphia’s 1842 Lombard Street Race Riots.

“When I started this, no one was thinking about Tulsa,” said Ronald Brown, the Philadelphia-based founder of the Juneteenth celebration in Philadelphia, who said he was proud that Juneteenth is finally a holiday. “Now you are seeing progress when it comes to taking care of Black history. That makes me feel good … But there is more work to be done.”

» READ MORE: Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. And that’s a good thing. | Jenice Armstrong

Although Juneteenth dates back to 1865, its resurgence can be traced back to a 2017 Black-ish episode, when Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, demands his family celebrate it.

Yet it wasn’t until America found itself reeling from the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, coupled with the truth that American history erases the Black American experience, did we start to see efforts by federal and state officials to make Juneteenth an observed holiday.

Why does Juneteenth matter? Here is a primer of why we all should celebrate:

When did Juneteenth start?

Juneteenth was first celebrated by newly emancipated Black Texans 156 years ago.

President Abraham Lincoln freed Black people in the South from bondage on Jan. 1, 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But enslaved Americans in Texas didn’t learn they were free until more than two years later after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered and the Union troops — that included hundreds of Black men — were strong enough to enforce the order that slavery was indeed over.

Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with his regiment, on June 13, 1865, but it took him six days to get to Galveston where the last of the enslaved were in bondage. When he told them they were free, parties erupted in the streets. (The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery across the U.S. didn’t come into effect until almost six months later, in December 1865, almost three years after Lincoln’s proclamation.)

Since then, Black Americans have marked June 19 — or Juneteenth — with picnics, parades, and fireworks displays. The celebration is also called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day.

Why wasn’t Juneteenth a mainstream holiday?

Juneteenth was celebrated in Black households — especially in the South — through the turn of the 20th century. But the date was left out of the history books. Children were taught that Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863. Period. To white America, Granger’s arrival in Texas ending slavery for the enslaved 2½ years later wasn’t a big deal. But it was to Black people.

“America’s greatness was predicated on Black supplication,” said Kali Nicole Gross, the Martin Luther King Scholar of Black History at Rutgers University and coauthor of A Black Women’s History of the United States. “The reality is the African American experience is not widely taught in the U.S. public school system [and that] is unconscionable, because it’s at the heart of the very shaping of this nation. White supremacists have been very effective in silencing the voices that teach an expansive, truthful, and realistic history of this nation.”

» READ MORE: 3 easy red dishes to make for your Juneteenth cookout

And so, the tradition of Black families celebrating Juneteenth got a little lost in the 20th century. From 1920 to 1970, six million Black people moved from the South to northern states to escape Jim Crow and make a better life for their families in what is known as the Great Black Migration. Many worked in factories and were not given time off to celebrate Juneteenth. After all, the Fourth of July was the day set aside for American independence.

The road to a federal holiday

Just as the traditions of Juneteenth were getting lost, some groups started to take them back and give the holiday a new political significance.

Juneteenth saw a resurgence during civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s, when student demonstrators in Atlanta wore Juneteenth freedom buttons, to call on the support of their ancestors.

In 1968, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Leader the Rev. Ralph Abernathy spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington and urged poor people of all races to demand jobs, unemployment, a fair minimum wage, and education to improve the self-image and self-esteem of poor people. The by-product: Young Black people went home to cities, including Milwaukee and Minneapolis, and kicked off Juneteenth celebrations to pay homage to their history. (Sound familiar?) And Juneteenth continued to slowly grow across the country during the Black power movement of the 1970s.

Brown began holding annual Juneteenth events in 1997, starting with a three-day event in Germantown that included parades, educational events, and picnics, as well as tours of important Black history sites, including stops on the Underground Railroad.

» READ MORE: ‘We finally have our own holiday.’ Slavery’s end celebrated with Juneteenth Day festivities

Philly’s Juneteenth celebrations grew from there. Within a decade, Philly started hosting an annual parade sponsored by legendary Philadelphia singer Kenny Gamble. In recent years, there have been competing events.

“I’m excited people want to know about their history,” Brown said. “What we want to do to is return them back to their consciousness and learn the history that was lost to them.”

Two years ago, Gov. Tom Wolf designated June 19 as National Freedom Day in Pennsylvania, closing state offices. In 2020, Mayor Jim Kenney used a one-time executive action to designate Juneteenth as an official city holiday, closing administrative offices. This year, Kenney reestablished Juneteenth as an official holiday via executive order and is hosting several events with local community organizations.

This week, Congress passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday; President Biden signed it into law on Thursday. And just like that, Juneteenth is a federal holiday. (If only maintaining Black people’s right to vote could be that easy.)

Why it matters that Juneteenth has finally been recognized

The truth is, Juneteenth always mattered. The problem was it wasn’t taught in school. And those who kept the holiday alive — even if it was just by saying an extra prayer at Sunday dinner — have left us. That means the most important historical event in Black history is still fighting to be seen.

» READ MORE: Systemic racism has affected all of us. Here’s how to start unlearning its harmful lessons | Elizabeth Wellington

Juneteenth celebrations are taking on even more importance as Americans — of all races, creeds, and colors — are seeing how much Black American lives, and history, have been ignored.

Because of last year’s racial reckoning, cities are rethinking the role of police departments. Statues of leaders who were brutal to Black people — including former Mayor Frank Rizzo — were removed. And institutions, brands, and leaders, from Aunt Jemima to Anna Wintour at Vogue, apologized for how they have treated Black people, both symbolically and in practice.

There has been backlash, too. Across the country, Republican-led legislatures have passed bills that ban or limit schools from teaching that racism is infused in American institutions, or simply put, that systemic racism is real. This is commonly referred to as critical race theory.

In June, Florida’s state education board voted to ban critical race theory from its schools with Gov. Ron DeSantis calling critical race theory an “outrageous” approach to history, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Alabama, Missouri, and Texas are among the other states where legislatures are challenging critical race theory.

So understanding the stories of Black American history becomes even more important.

This article has been updated since it first published.

» READ MORE: Our best Philly tips: Read our most useful stories