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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What to know about Juneteenth and its historical significance

By Niha Masih Washington Post

On Wednesday, the United States observes Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery, a painful chapter in the nation’s history whose legacy continues to reverberate. Juneteenth – a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth” – has been celebrated for decades by Black communities as Emancipation Day, but the recent broader reckoning over racial injustices and deepening political polarization has thrust the day further into national and cultural prominence.

Many states and cities plan festivities to mark Juneteenth, which is often celebrated with parades, street parties and cookouts. The day is a historic one for American history, civil rights activists say, and memorializing it reaffirms the country’s quest for equality.

What is Juneteenth and its history?

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed enslaved people in Confederate states, but it did not immediately end slavery in places such as Texas that remained under Confederate control. Two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, Union troops led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free. (Nationwide emancipation would come only with the ratification of the 13th Amendment later that year.)

For Black people, the news was a moment of “indescribable joy” that was met with large celebrations in Texas, historian C.R. Gibbs told the Washington Post. Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Black Independence Day, the day remains deeply significant for the community.

June 19 became a kind of July 4 celebration for African Americans, john a. powell (who does not capitalize his name), the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Post.

“It’s particularly important for African Americans because they are still struggling for freedom and equality. But June 19 was a momentous day to mark that next chapter that we embarked on,” he said.

Recognizing history, powell added, is part of the process. “We can’t make progress unless we have knowledge (of) where we are and where we have been,” he said.

For Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the author of “On Juneteenth,” the day commemorates an advancement in human rights. “It represents the hope that the country can strive to be better, and work to perfect the Union,” she told the Post.

How is Juneteenth commemorated?

Texas was the center of major Juneteenth festivities for decades, but the traditions have spread across the country in recent years. The initial celebrations around Juneteenth were used to teach newly freed enslaved people about voting rights.

Its first anniversary, in 1866, was marked by a large procession in Galveston that was attended by hundreds of men, women and children. In Houston, community leaders pooled money to purchase land for a commemoration site, which came to be known as Emancipation Park.

Gordon-Reed, a Texas native, said the day is about coming together as a family and as a community to cook and eat together.

“At more public celebrations, there are speeches and poetry. It’s a festive occasion, but the underlying importance of the day is emphasized,” she added.

Juneteenth celebrations are associated with a rich and distinct culinary tradition and often feature red-colored drinks and food items, including barbecue and, more recently, red velvet cake. Among the most beloved drinks is a ruby-hued elixir based on African hibiscus ginger tea, master herbalist Sunyatta Amen once wrote for the Post. Enslaved people from Africa carried a wide variety of plants and crops, including hibiscus, to the Americas, and the drink became a potent reminder of home.

This year, Galveston will screen a documentary film and host a live music event and lectures through the week on the history of Juneteenth. In D.C., the National Archives will put two historic papers, including the Emancipation Proclamation, on public display. Scotland, a historically African American community in Montgomery County, Maryland, that was founded by formerly enslaved people, will host a parade and a car show.

When was Juneteenth declared a federal holiday?

In 2021, President Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act – which marked June 19 as a federal holiday – during nationwide racial justice demonstrations that swept the country after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The measure received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, with only 14 House Republicans voting against it. Opponents of the bill called it an attempt to celebrate identity politics and to remake the country’s ideology with critical race theory – which examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism – at its center.

Establishing Juneteenth as a holiday, Biden said in his remarks, would be “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency.

Around him stood members of the Congressional Black Caucus; Vice President Harris, the first woman of color to hold the office; as well as activist Opal Lee, who had campaigned for the day to be made into a national holiday.

“We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration,” Harris said at the event. “It is not only a day of pride, it is also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”

Civil rights groups welcomed the move. “It is a reminder that freedom is an ongoing fight,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said at the time.

Which states observe Juneteenth as

a holiday?

At least 30 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday.

Texas was the first state to pass legislation, making it a state holiday in January 1980. Texas House Bill 1016, first introduced in early 1979, declared Emancipation Day a legal holiday. Kansas and Rhode Island are some of the latest states to mark Juneteenth as a state holiday. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in May designating Juneteenth a state holiday.

In Alabama, a new bill would make Juneteenth a state holiday, although state employees would be able to choose between recognizing Juneteenth or the birthday of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, on June 3. A similar effort is underway in Alaska, where a bill making June 19 a state holiday is awaiting the governor’s nod.

Every state has at some point recognized Juneteenth at least as a day of observance – meaning it is commemorated even if it is not a day off, according to Pew Research Center.

What’s closed on Juneteenth?

The Federal Reserve and its branches will be closed Wednesday, and some major commercial banks including Bank of America and Wells Fargo will be shut. Federal courts will be closed, although the electronic filing system will be available.

Juneteenth is a holiday for U.S. Postal Service employees. Pickup and delivery services will be available at UPS and FedEx locations. It is also a U.S. stock market holiday.