Juneteenth is one of America’s oldest holidays and is observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the US.
The day, which gets its name from combining June and 19, has long been celebrated by black Americans as a symbol of their long-awaited emancipation — but the story behind the holiday, and how Juneteenth got its meaning, starts more than 150 years ago in Galveston, Texas.
What is the meaning and history behind Juneteenth?
On June 19, 1865, Union troops led by Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to break the news to the last remaining Confederate sympathizers that they’d lost the Civil War and all slaves must be freed.
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the Union general read aloud to the residents of Galveston, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
“This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Newly freed slaves celebrated emancipation with “prayer, feasting, song, and dance” and the following year, the first official Juneteenth celebration was born, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
“The importance of [Juneteenth] is that it’s kind of rooted in this long history of struggle to get freedom and then the efforts to maintain that freedom in the face of enormous repression that was going to come shortly after,” explained Columbia University Professor David Rosner, PhD.
“It signified the true end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, a time that was supposed to be very happy and hopeful but became a very miserable time as part of the redemption of the South to move African Americans to indentured servitude.”
While President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in his Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, rebellious Confederate strongholds dotted across the South delayed the widespread implementation.
Following Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s reluctant surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Granger was able to finally make his way to Galveston to enact Lincoln’s proclamation and free the last remaining victims of chattel slavery in the US.
The reason why the news took so long to travel, and why slavery persisted in Galveston for more than two and half years after Lincoln ended the practice, isn’t clear.
Legend has it a messenger on horseback with news of freedom was murdered on his way to Texas, while other historians blame Galveston’s isolated nature as a barrier island on the eastern edge of Texas, and their limited access to communication.
But Professor Noliwe Rooks, PhD, director of American studies and professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, said the delayed end to slavery was fueled by nothing but greed.
“The idea that people in that part of Texas had no idea that the war was over is farcical, quite frankly,” Rooks told The Post, chuckling at the thought.
“There were wire services, there were newspapers … the larger plantation owners were very wealthy and wealthy people have access to information,” the professor went on.
“They were brutal people but they were the ruling class in the United States. They were elite, many were wealthy, they were not illiterate or backwards. They were brutal and inhuman, but not ignorant.”
At the time, Galveston had its own newspaper, the Galveston Daily News, and a dispatch from New Orleans detailing the end of the war and the return of Confederate prisoners was published on June 3, 1865, more than two weeks before Granger arrived, according to archives accessible through Newspapers.com.
Nevertheless, Juneteenth has been “passed down” through black communities ever since, Rooks said, and following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the modern-day civil rights movement that came after, the holiday has seen a renewed interest.
When did Juneteenth become a holiday and how many states and companies recognize it as a holiday?
Congress passed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday in June 2021 but 48 states and the District of Columbia had already passed legislation recognizing it as a holiday or observance.
The first official Juneteenth celebration came the year after the liberation of slaves in Galveston, but it would take more than a hundred years for Texas to consider it a state holiday. In 1980, Texas became the first state in the US to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.
The only two states yet to recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday are Hawaii and South Dakota. Hawaii has passed legislation that would make Juneteenth a holiday but the bill is still set to be signed by the state’s governor.
While the majority of states observe the day, only a handful of states — outside of Texas — recognize it as a paid state holiday.
During the summer of 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to give every executive branch employee a paid day off in celebration of Juneteenth and by October of that year, the legislature passed a law making it a permanent state holiday.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a similar announcement that summer when he signed an executive order recognizing June 19 as a paid holiday for state employees and later signed legislation that made the move permanent, as did the state of Washington.
After Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 brought a renewed focus to the plight of black Americans, private companies have also started to commemorate Juneteenth and some have designated it as a paid company holiday as well.
This is a running list of the companies that have recognized Juneteenth:
- Best Buy announced employees will be offered a “paid volunteer day” for Juneteenth 2020 and in 2021, it became a “formal, paid company holiday.”
- Allstate honors Juneteenth as an annual company holiday
- General Motors held an 8-minute, 46-second-long moment of silence in 2020 in honor of Floyd, who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
- Google urged their employees in 2020 to cancel unnecessary meetings and encouraged staff to use the day “to create space for learning and reflection.”
- J.C. Penney told staffers Juneteenth will be considered an annual holiday for workers.
- JPMorgan Chase closed all Chase branches early at 1 p.m. on June 19, 2020, in honor of the day.
- Lyft honors Juneteenth as a company-wide holiday.
- Mastercard designated June 19 as a “Day of Solidarity” and urged workers to “pause and reflect” about all of the work left to do to “combat racism and discrimination.”
- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Juneteenth will be considered a league holiday and the NFL office was ordered to close on June 19, 2020.
- Nike has made Juneteenth an annual paid holiday.
- Postmates has declared June 19 an official company holiday.
- Spotify will make Juneteenth a paid holiday for all employees.
- Target workers who are paid hourly will receive time and a half for working June 19 and it is now a company holiday.
- Twitter and Square made Juneteenth a company holiday in 2020 and moving forward.
- Uber employees will be given a paid day off.
- National Grid decided in 2021 to honor Juneteenth as an annual paid company holiday.
- Media companies including VOX and NPR have made Juneteenth a paid company holiday.
- Lush, the cosmetics brand, is recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for US employees.
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Juneteenth celebrations made their way through Texas and into neighboring states, according to the Congressional Research Service’s latest Juneteenth fact sheet.
“Texans celebrated Juneteenth beginning in 1866, with community-centric events, such as parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, historical and cultural readings, and musical performances. Over time, communities have developed their own traditions,” the report states.
In 1872, black Texans led by Baptist minister and former slave Rev. Jack Yates raised $1,000 to buy 10 acres of land in Houston that could be dedicated to Juneteenth celebrations and named the location Emancipation Park, according to the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
Today, Rooks said Juneteenth continues to be a day for jubilant celebrations.
“It’s a celebration, it’s not solemn, it’s filled with joy and pageantry. It’s not a funeral, so people have cookouts and those kinds of things,” Rooks said.
“You’ll see people with crowns on their head and they’re Miss Juneteenth and they’ve been voted on and crowned … people have carnival-like atmospheres, block parties, street vendors, it’s very much a celebration.”
But as the country continues to scrutinize police brutality and demonstrate against it, Juneteenth is an opportunity to focus on the work that still needs to be done to advance black rights, Rooks said.
“In the US at least, there’s a real grappling with what it meant and it what it continues to mean that so much of the economy in the US during a particular period of time was based on the enslavement of human beings and not acknowledging the humanity and calling us property that allowed slavery to flourish,” Rooks explained.
“At its center, at its core, is a call for the recognition of black people as human beings whose lives matter.”
With Post Wires