On June 19, Americans across the nation will celebrate Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. Cookouts, street fairs, parades, concerts, and other activities will be held nationwide to celebrate the holiday and honor African American culture and achievements.
Juneteenth, as a national holiday, is only a year old. President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021. Still, celebrations for the eleventh federal holiday date back to the late 1800s.
The Emancipation Proclamation, declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, freed enslaved people in the Southern secessionist states. Still, enforcement in areas such as Texas was slow and inconsistent due to the lack of Union troop presence. Freedom finally arrived on June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, securing the Union army’s authority over Texas and setting enslaved African Americans free. A year later, the first official Juneteenth celebration was held.
The earliest Juneteenth celebrations included dressing in fancy clothes, attending sermons and spirituals, and eating and drinking red foods and beverages to commemorate the blood spilled during slavery. In 1872 a group of African American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park for Juneteenth celebrations.
Juneteenth also called “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day,” became a Texas state holiday in 1980. Still, it would take more than 40 years before the date was recognized nationally, thanks to grassroots efforts from activists like Opal Lee. A retired teacher, counselor, and activist, Lee volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and served 500 families daily with her food bank, but she felt she could do more. So, in 2016, at the age of 89, Lee began a march from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington D.C. to bring attention to Juneteenth. In 2019 she started a petition which collected 1.5 million signatures supporting a Juneteenth national holiday. Social justice marches in the summer of 2020 renewed interest in making Juneteenth a national holiday, and it was finally made official a year later.
Learn more about the history and celebration of Juneteenth at Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Juneteenth.com, and opalswalk2dc.com.