Juneteenth: What We Celebrate & Why

By Katie Frauenfelder, MA, LPC, NASM CPT, Director of Diversity and Inclusion

Let’s see a show of hands: How many of you know the date Juneteenth falls on? By use of deductive reasoning skills (and given the timing of this article being posted), the month is obvious. Now what about the date? If it weren’t for the fact that it has recently been named a federal holiday, prompting many businesses to offer it as a paid holiday for their employees, would your hand still be raised? If so, I’m impressed!

Part two of this question may be a little more difficult: Can you tell me when June 19th became a celebrated holiday? If your answer was June 19, 2021, I hate to burst your bubble. While that is the date it was first recognized as a federal holiday, this day has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s. So, this brings me to the third and final part to this question (which arguably may be the toughest): Do you know why Juneteenth is celebrated?

Before knowing what I now know about Juneteenth, I ignorantly assumed it was a day orchestrated by the government as a well-meaning (but obvious) response to the riots and protests following the murder of George Floyd. As advantageous as it was to declare this a national holiday, I’ll admit, I did find it a little cliché. This is what it took to finally devote a day, ONE single day to signify the longstanding structural and systematic inequities rooted in racism and discrimination? I had every intention of this post being an entirely different, more opinionated piece about how cringey I thought this was…until I brushed up on my facts regarding the date’s history. Boy do I feel sheepish (insert grimacing emoji).

Juneteenth is an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, two months after the confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, VA, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. This announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln over two years prior. Other names for the holiday are “Emancipation Day,” “Freedom Day,” and “Juneteenth Independence Day”.

Early celebrations of the holiday included family gatherings and faith-based practices. They later involved crusades to Galveston by people formerly enslaved. In 1872, a group of African American men purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and constructed Emancipation Park, a location intended to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

In terms of it becoming a federally recognized holiday, I suppose I wasn’t entirely wrong about what it took for it to become the day it is now. Let me explain.

In 2020, in the wake of the nationwide protests against police brutality and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, the push for federal recognition of Juneteenth gained new momentum. Congress worked to push the bill through legislation in the summer of 2021, and the House of Representatives almost unanimously voted in support of its passing. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the bill into law which went into effect immediately.

Today, celebrations are widespread, with major cities holding large events including parades, parties, and festivals, and Juneteenth now encompasses more than what it did prior to 2020. Today it also represents the hope of many to secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, but especially African Americans, who have been fighting for these rights for far too long.

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