Sam Roberts and his family are planning for Juneteenth, the newest U.S. holiday commemorating the 1865 emancipation of Black enslaved people at the end of the Civil War.
On Sunday, the Roberts family and other Americans will attend celebrations and observances. It’s part of a growing national recognition of a pivotal moment in U.S. history that’s been a part of the fabric of Black culture for generations.
“Juneteenth is our Freedom Day and African American communities have been celebrating June 19th for a long time,” said Roberts, a father of two from Washington, D.C. It’s the second national observance of the holiday since Congress authorized it and U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law last year.
“While July 4th is the celebration of freedom for the United States, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom for African Americans after the Civil War,” said Jesse Holland, an author and Black historian.
The push for a Juneteenth federal holiday came amid the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement and a year after nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. It followed the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Since then, the annual celebration has taken on a new meaning for some in the Black community.
“Juneteenth reminds Black Americans we still face the challenges of hate and discrimination our ancestors endured,” Roberts said. “We have to redouble our quest for equality.”
Some historians believe greater awareness of Juneteenth will encourage forward leaning conversations among Americans about race relations and the legacies of slavery.
A national public opinion survey suggests most Americans believe Black people today have been affected by the history of slavery and that the federal government has a responsibility to address those effects, according to the poll by the Gallup Center on Black Voices.
Additionally, the poll found Americans who think the government is responsible generally believe all Black Americans, rather than just those descended from slaves, should benefit from programs to address the effects of slavery.
“Not every African American in the United States are descendants of slaves, but for the large majority of us who are, Juneteenth is the time for us to take stock of who we are today, where we came from and the sacrifices our ancestors went through before and since the Civil War,” Holland told VOA.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a declaration following the end of the Civil War that legally freed more than three million enslaved Blacks in Confederate States. But not all slaves were free because the proclamation could not be implemented in parts of the southern United States.
To enforce the proclamation, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to issue the “General Order Number 3,” which ended the enslavement of Blacks in Texas. The mandate freed an estimated 250,000 slaves two-and-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
“White Texans knew the Civil War was [over] and slavery was banned, but they didn’t tell their slaves the war was over for years [in order] to continue to get free labor out of them,” said Holland. “Juneteenth is when the lie ended and federal forces showed up to enforce the new federal law saying slavery was illegal in the United States.”
While Juneteenth is celebrated as the end of slavery, the practice of involuntary servitude continued briefly in the states of Delaware and Kentucky. On December 6, 1865, ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States.
The first events commemorating Juneteenth date to 1866, when former slaves celebrated their new freedom with prayer, feasting, song, and dance. The anniversary saw a decline in popularity in the 1950’s and 60’s as Black Americans focused on the civil rights movement and ending racial discrimination. Juneteenth saw a revival in the 1980’s when Texas became the first state to declare the date a state holiday. Other communities across the U.S. slowly began to adopt the annual observance as a public holiday.
Much of the success in galvanizing support for a national holiday is credited to African American activist Opal Lee, known as “the grandmother of Juneteenth.” As a child, Lee witnessed a group of 500 white supremacists vandalize and burn her family's home to the ground. The life-changing moment led her to a life of teaching and activism.
In 2016, at age 89, she began a walking campaign, traveling hundreds of kilometers from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to press for a Juneteenth federal holiday. At 95, Lee is delighted Juneteenth is gaining national attention. She will march again Sunday to celebrate the holiday.
“It’s important people recognize Juneteenth,” Lee said in an interview with D Magazine last month. “It is not a Black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, but it’s about freedom for everybody.”
Today’s Juneteenth celebrations often feature music festivals, parades or a march. The observances also focus on teachings about African American heritage, political participation, and economic empowerment.
“On the 19th we gather for cookouts, dance, and share stories of the Black experience,” Roberts told VOA. His family has attended Juneteenth festivities for decades. “This year we have two days of events on Sunday and Monday, the day the federal holiday falls on,” he said. The holiday has become a summertime ritual for the Roberts and one of a few holidays they observe.
In Utah, Juneteenth is being designated as a state holiday for the first time after lawmakers approved a bill earlier this year. “I am so thrilled to see us, as a state, embrace this holiday,” said Utah State Legislator Sandra Hollins. “For me it means a lot. It means my culture mattered and it means that we get to celebrate a holiday that has been overlooked in this state.” Several festivities will take place in the capital, Salt Lake City.
Nearly all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia now observe Juneteenth. Historian Holland believes it’s a clear sign of national recognition and acceptance.
“Juneteenth is American history and everyone should be able to celebrate it, including people of all races, colors and creeds.”