On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, S. 475, making Juneteenth a national holiday. This is the first federally approved holiday since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983. Most people, however, are unaware of the significance of Juneteenth against the complicated backdrop of the American Civil War.
Juneteenth and History
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 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 soldiers to 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. The announcement, having been made in June and on the nineteenth day of that month, came to be known as “Juneteenth.” It is also known by other names such as Freedom, Emancipation, or Jubilee Day. Since June 19 falls on a Sunday this year, the holiday will officially be observed on Monday, June 20.
How to Celebrate Juneteenth
- Participate in Juneteenth activities in your community.
- Visit a Juneteenth display and/or a museum that focuses on African American culture.
- Gather with family and friends for an outdoor picnic and talk about the importance of the day.
- Join Opal’s Walk. Opal Lee is a civil rights activist who advocated to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Today, she is known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth.”
- Watch a movie about the American Civil War or African American history.
Visit the Smithsonian’s website for more information about this federal holiday.