Juneteenth, a holiday observed on June 19, is considered by many to be the “African American Emancipation Day.” First observed in 1865, it is the the oldest nationwide celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. The name Juneteenth is derived from the fusion of the words June and nineteenth.
On 19 June 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the new freedoms granted to former slaves by the signing of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Until then, the minimal Union presence in the Texas region meant that the vast majority of African Americans were still living in virtual bondage.
Juneteenth celebrations serve an important function in that the popular portrayal of Independence Day ignores the issue of slavery and the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation completely. For this reason, many of the larger festivities resemble parties you might expect to see on the Fourth of July.
The function of Juneteenth has changed somewhat over the years. Originally, the event had strong religious undertones. Then, after the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave black men the right to vote in 1870, Juneteenth was used as a platform to teach African Americans about the United States political process and their new found voting rights. After falling out of favor around the time of World War II, Juneteenth returned again as a chance to promote cultural pride during the 1970s. Today, celebrations are used as a time to reflect on the African American experience as well as encourage respect for other cultures.
The festival can be observed in many different ways, including as part of a larger week or month long celebration of African American culture. On Juneteenth, libraries and government organizations often create displays to honor African American history. Large corporations hold diversity seminars to discuss African American experiences in the business world. Churches and civic organizations hold barbecue cookouts, blues festivals, baseball games, dances, parades, rodeos, lectures, and other special events to provide African American community members with a chance to come together. Since Juneteenth is meant to be a time of reflection, there is no “right” way to mark the occasion.
Since Juneteenth began in Galveston, Texas, it should come as no surprise that it has been a Texas state holiday since 1980. It is also recognized as an official holiday in states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and Alaska. Several large cities, including Milwaukee and Minneapolis, also host official community-wide celebrations.