Photo: Austin Public Library/Public Domain

If you’ve been tuned into the news recently, you know that President Biden recently made June 19th–commonly known as Juneteenth–an official federal holiday. “By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel,” Biden said.

But for many Americans, the day of Juneteenth is an unfamiliar one. Indeed, it was only recently that Juneteenth celebrations crossed over from Black communities to the mainstream. After the racial reckoning of 2020, the celebration on Juneteenth became a celebration that all Americans–not just Black Americans began to acknowledge.

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What is the history of Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day and Black Independence Day, commemorates June 19, 1865. On that day in history, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved peoples that the American Civil War was over, the North had won, and they were emancipated.

The Proclamation from the Executive of the United States read:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Notably, the enslaved people of Texas found out about their freedom a full two months after the South officially lost the Civil War. Thus, Black Americans recognize June 19th as the day that emancipation of all slaves finally came into full effect. However, the truth is that the actual final day that all enslaved Americans were truly free was December 18, 1865–the day when slaves were finally freed from the border states of Delaware and Kentucky.

Why did the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas not know that they were free?

The primary reason for this boils down to geography. For one, Texas was a large and sprawling state–much of which was far from the primary action of the Civil War. The only way that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced was through the advancement of Union troops–troops that hadn’t made their way through much of Texas. And of course, their slave-owners were not going to tell them.

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

The annual celebration of Juneteenth or “Jubilee Day” began immediately, in 1866. In the Reconstruction period (before Jim Crow laws took a stronghold in the South), Black Americans used it as a time to gather and educate themselves on their voting rights, as well as register to vote. And of course, Black Americans gather with their loved ones and community members. People throw parades and barbecues, dance, sing, and pray.

However, the biggest celebration is undoubtedly in Galveston, Texas, where many descendants of the original enslaved people still live. In 1862, a group of prominent Black Texans pooled their money together and bought land for Emancipation park, where annual Juneteenth celebrations are still held.

Why has Juneteenth gone “mainstream” in the last few years?

The reason Juneteenth captured the nation’s attention can largely be attributed to the racial reckoning of 2020. After the tragic deaths of Black Americans like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, public interest in social justice for Black Americans grew.

Paired with that is the educational nature of social media. Due to the general zeitgeist, many more Black Americans were publicly discussing Juneteenth on social media. And many non-Black Americans were paying attention to Black Americans’ posts.

So, as President Joe Biden said, use Juneteenth to “learn from our history and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel.”