Last year, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill declaring June 19, also known as “Juneteenth,” a federal holiday. Marking the official end of slavery in Texas, Juneteenth is now also a Colorado state holiday after Governor Jared Polis signed it into law earlier this year.
Yet, a recent Gallup survey shows more than 60% of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about what Juneteenth is or its importance in American history.
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a professor of African American history who researches Black cultural history and collective memory in the United States, spoke about how and why we celebrate Juneteenth.
Why do we celebrate Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is just one of many Emancipation celebrations in the African Diaspora. Black people throughout the Americas since the early 1800s have celebrated Emancipation when it came to their nations, states or regions. Juneteenth is a celebration that originally focused on Black Texans. On June 19, 1865—more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863—a Union general proclaimed enslaved people in Texas were free.
Emancipation celebrations were spaces where African Americans reflected on the past, present and future of the race, commemorated what freedom meant to them and served as a call to action for continued struggles. But the days on which people celebrate Emancipation differs from state to state—it’s not just a singular event on June 19.
How has Juneteenth spread from a local Texas celebration to a national holiday?
Juneteenth spread to a national holiday for a few reasons. First, was the second wave of the Great Migration between 1940 and 1970—the movement of millions of Black Southerners to the West, Midwest and Northeast. Black Texans who moved out of the state as part of the movement carried many traditions with them, including Juneteenth celebrations.
Second, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s there was a movement by several Black activists and politicians to make the day into a federal holiday. Finally, in 2021—as a response to the summer protests of 2020—a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers came together to make Juneteenth into a national holiday. This nationalization was celebrated but also came with some pushback from Black activists and Black Texans on the timing of this decision.
In what ways do people celebrate Juneteenth?
People celebrate in different ways. There are parades, music festivals, political events, pageants and parties. In many ways these celebrations are no different than the multi-faceted affair that Emancipation Days were in the mid-to-late 19th century. The major difference now is that it is a national holiday, with associated closures, etc., rather than a locally organized affair.
Celebrations are bigger and more diverse now that it's become a federal holiday. The nationalization of the holiday changed how people celebrate Juneteenth, with recent conversations centered on what the commercialization and nationalization of the holiday means for its original meaning and purpose.
How can I educate myself and others about Juneteenth?
A good short history of the holiday’s evolution can be found on BlackPast, a web-based reference center that is dedicated to the understanding of African American history. But I also encourage people to read up on the broader history of Emancipation Days across the United States, because Black Americans continue to celebrate different dates in different places.
- Juneteenth in Colorado
- On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed: a short book about the holiday and what it means for Texas
- Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations by Mitch Kachun’s: a history of how freedom was celebrated across the United States and how those celebrations changed after the Civil War
- Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer: a visual history of how Black people experienced and celebrated Emancipation
Title image: Juneteenth parade in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1922 (CC image).