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Background for Juneteenth holiday day with colorful paper

Juneteenth became a national holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. This made Juneteenth the first federally approved holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. This holiday is also called Freedom, Emancipation, or Jubilee Day. Unfortunately, Juneteenth can make people uncomfortable because it focuses on the end of slavery in the United States. However, the holiday is about much more than just slavery. It is about hope and more importantly, freedom.

Freedom is the ability to act, speak, or think without restraints or limitations. If you ask people from diverse backgrounds across the US–or even around the world–what freedom means to them, no doubt you will get a variety of answers. Individuals generally respond to questions based on their personal experiences. Therefore, think of Juneteenth as a day to express what freedom means to you and do something that makes you happy or hopeful.

The History of Juneteenth

Many people are unaware of the significance of Juneteenth against the complicated backdrop of the American Civil War. At the heart of the Civil War was the question of slavery. Today, many Americans believe that slavery ended when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This was not the case. During this time in history, America was in its third year of civil war. With 20 states already in the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the ten Southern states that seceded from the Union. Yet, the enforcement of this legislation greatly depended on whether the Union or the Confederacy would win the Civil War.

Even with legislation such as the Emancipation Proclamation, most states were reluctant to formally abolish slavery. The American Civil War ended on April 9, 1865. The Union was declared the victor and the end of slavery was inevitable. As a result, federal soldiers had full authority and enough men to finally enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. For instance, on June 19, federal troops led by Major General Gordon Granger would deliver General Order #3 in Galveston, Texas announcing that all enslaved persons were free and were to be treated as other hired workers. This announcement, having been made in June and on the nineteenth day of that month, came to be known as Juneteenth.

Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth

Here are some ideas on how to celebrate Juneteenth.

  • Visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s website, nmaahc.si.edu/, for more information on Juneteenth. This website also has a great resource for children titled NMAAHC Kids: Understanding and Celebrating Juneteenth.
  • Join Opal’s Walk for Freedom from any location. Opal Lee is a civil rights activist who advocated making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Today, she is known as the grandmother of Juneteenth.
  • Host a family gathering–like an outdoor picnic–and talk about the importance of the day.
  • Attend a local Juneteenth celebration or an African American historical site in your city or state.
  • Support a Black-owned business in your community.
  • Donate to a worthy cause that empowers people of color or promotes tolerance.
  • Do something that makes you happy and again, reflect upon the day.
  • Watch a movie about the American Civil War or African American history.

Remember, June 19 is officially Juneteenth and it’s a celebration about hope and freedom!