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What Is the Significance of Juneteenth, the Newest Federal Holiday?

Margaret Lipman
Published Jun 19, 2024
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For many Americans, celebrating July 4 as Independence Day means overlooking a bitter truth about the early history of the United States. In 1776, and for many decades afterward, millions of people living in slave states were not free. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the legal status of enslaved people in the Confederacy.

Yet as the U.S. Civil War was still being fought at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, over 3.5 million African Americans remained enslaved. It would take the advance of the Union Army to enforce the Proclamation throughout the defeated Confederate states, especially in remote Texas. For that reason, June 19, 1865, is a notable day in the history of African Americans and the nation as a whole.

On that day, more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, symbolically ending the war, Gen. Gordon Granger and his Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. Granger issued a proclamation known as General Order No. 3 to emancipate any remaining enslaved persons in Texas, the last bastion of slaveholding Confederate control.

Juneteenth (a portmanteau of “June” and “19th”) celebrations began in Texas the following year, primarily centered around churches, with a large procession involving hundreds of people taking place in Galveston. The holiday gradually gained traction beyond Texas among Black communities across the South and eventually nationwide. Also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth was formally recognized as a holiday by Texas by proclamation in 1938 and by legislation in 1979. Every US state has now recognized Juneteenth as a day of observance (though not always as a public holiday).

The importance of Juneteenth continued to grow during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and it has taken on multi-faceted significance in the 21st century, particularly following the galvanizing effects of the Black Lives Matter movement. These days, Juneteenth is not only a reminder of emancipation and a joyful celebration of African-American culture and identity, but also a serious opportunity to assess the longstanding implications of slavery and the challenges still faced by Black communities in the 21st century.

It would ultimately take over 150 years for Juneteenth to be recognized as a U.S. federal holiday. With broad bipartisan support, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17, 2021, ensuring that Juneteenth would be commemorated at the national level every year. With this law, Juneteenth became the first new federal holiday since the adoption of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Celebrating emancipation and the ongoing struggle for equality:

  • Modern Juneteenth celebrations often feature parades, street parties, cookouts, music, speeches, lectures, poetry readings, community service, and voter registration drives. The color red typically appears prominently in food eaten on Juneteenth, including barbecue, hibiscus tea, strawberry soda, and red velvet cake.

  • This year, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., will put the Emancipation Proclamation and General Order No. 3 on public display as part of the Juneteenth celebrations.

  • The stock market, banks, post offices, federal offices, and federal courts are also closed, though most large retail stores remain open. Some state employees get a paid day off, depending on where they live.

  • On December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, enshrining the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Constitution. This amendment also granted freedom to enslaved people living in states that had not seceded from the Union, finally closing a glaring loophole in the Emancipation Proclamation.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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