Even as Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday in 2021, many employers likely have large portions of their workforce who remain unfamiliar with the details of the holiday. This month provides the perfect opportunity to explain the significance of Juneteenth not only for Black Americans but for all Americans.
The following looks at the recent action taken by the United States government in relation to Juneteenth as well as the history of the holiday. It’s been an important holiday for Black Americans for 150 years as it marks the end of slavery in the United States.
It’s also an important holiday for all Americans in the lessons it teaches about rule of law, equality, how the country came to define what it means to be a U.S. citizen, the stain of slavery on the nation’s history, and the actions taken by leaders of the past to end it.
Becoming a National Holiday
President Joe Biden named Juneteenth a national holiday on June 17, 2021. The day commemorates the 1865 announcement made in Galveston, Texas, that slaves had been freed. The decision to officially mark the holiday has been a long time coming. Various congressional representatives and advocates have argued for the designation for decades.
In signing the proclamation, Biden called Juneteenth “a day of profound weight and power.” He said the day offers the chance for Americans to “remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country” and the “ long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity.”
“But it is a day that also reminds us of our incredible capacity to heal, hope, and emerge from our darkest moments with purpose and resolve,” Biden said.
The Origins of Juneteenth
While it centers on a specific event in Texas, Juneteenth – a word that combines June and “19th” – marks a day of celebration for the freedom given to slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. Until that moment, the freedoms listed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights applied only to white men.
(When it came to voting, those freedoms applied only to property-owning white men. The first states did not start allowing non-property-owning white men to vote until 1828. North Carolina was the last state to allow it, in 1856. And women did not get to vote until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920.)
More than two years after Lincoln issued the proclamation, a ship arrived at Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, carrying Major General Gordon Granger. He announced that the war had ended (officially, it ended on April 9, 1865) and all enslaved people were now free.
While the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed the slaves, it changed nothing in the slave-holding states of the Confederacy. Even after the end of the war, Texas remained the last state with institutional slavery. But Granger and his men had come to enforce the law. Their actions resulted in freedom for an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas.
The First Juneteenth Celebrations
Granger and the 2,000 Union troops that had come to Galveston marched through the city, reading the following proclamation.
“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.”
Juneteenth celebrations began the very next year, with Black Americans celebrating the day much like the Fourth of July. Churches held many of the events, with celebrations including a prayer service, inspirational speeches, a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos and dances, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
In some cases, freed slaves purchased land to hold the celebrations. Those “emancipation grounds” include Emancipation Park in both Houston and Austin and what is now called Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia. Celebrations continue to this day, including a two-day sold-out series of concerts in Houston for 2022.
Celebrations soon spread to Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Eventually, they reached every corner of the country as Black people began to migrate outside of the South.
The Legal Importance of Juneteenth
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, it only related to slaves in the Confederate states. The border states of Kentucky and Delaware did not free slaves until the passage of the 13th Amendment, adopted on Dec. 18, 1865. The amendment abolished slavery in the current states and any future state. It also ended involuntary servitude, the practice of forcing people to work to pay off their debts.
The proclamation also opened the door to the passage of the 14th Amendment on July 9, 1868. The amendment defines a U.S. citizen as anyone “born or naturalized” in the U.S. It effectively nullified the 1857 decision from the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case in which the court said those descended from African slaves could not be U.S. citizens.
As noted by Theodorea Regina Berry, Vice Provost of Student Learning and Academic Success at the University of Central Florida, “the relationship between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment rests in the notion of freedom and the rights and responsibilities of freedom.”
The Emancipation Proclamation and the two amendments that followed marked the beginning of the modern United States and “began the long-term goal of achieving equality for all Americans,” according to National Geographic.
Celebrating Juneteenth Today
With its place as a national holiday, Juneteenth celebrations will grow in the coming years. For Black people, it’s a celebration of freedom that’s also called Emancipation Day. For others, it’s also a day of celebration of the birth of the modern U.S. and the start of supporting true liberty for all.
It’s also a perfect time for white people to learn about their nation’s history. As comedian Samantha Bee said, “Don’t ask a Black person more questions about Juneteenth. Your education – it’s not their job. Look it up.”
Others offer ways for white people to celebrate Juneteenth, including considering the wound of racism on the nation’s history, reading Black history and literature, using their power and privilege to make space for Black and Brown leaders, and getting past feeling uncomfortable about discussing the issues of racism or police violence.
They also encourage white people to spend time in places with people who do not look like they do. Juneteenth offers a perfect opportunity to accomplish that goal. It’s also a good time for companies to encourage their employees to acknowledge this important national holiday. It’s just as important to the founding of the modern United States as the events celebrated on July the Fourth.