Juneteenth National Independence Day is a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to deliver the news that slavery had been abolished. A year later, the first official Juneteenth celebration took place.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation, declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, freed enslaved people in the Southern secessionist states, enforcement in areas such as Texas was slow and inconsistent due to the lack of Union troop presence. Freedom finally arrived when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, securing the Union Army’s authority over Texas and freeing enslaved African Americans.
The earliest Juneteenth celebrations included dressing in one’s best clothes, attending sermons and spirituals, and eating and drinking red foods and beverages to commemorate the blood spilled during slavery.
Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday in 1980, but 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 began a march from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to Juneteenth. She later started a petition which garnered 1.5 million signatures in favor of a national Juneteenth holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday.
Today, Americans celebrate Juneteenth with cookouts, street fairs, parades, and concerts. The day is also celebrated in countries outside of the United States to recognize the end of slavery and honor African American culture and achievements.
To learn more about Juneteenth, visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Juneteenth.com, and opalswalk2dc.com.
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