As of 2021, Juneteenth is officially celebrated nationally on June the 19th. However, this day of celebration and remembrance has long been celebrated by the Black community, specifically since 1866. 

Many schools around the nation do not teach students about Juneteenth or other important events in Black American history (some cannot by law). This has led to a large percentage of Americans not understanding the holiday and why it is important. Still wondering, “what is Juneteenth Day?” Find out all about it here from its history to how it is celebrated. 

What Is Juneteenth Day?

Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Jubilee Day, Freedom Day and other names, is the longest running commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is celebrated annually on June 19th and marks the day in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of all enslaved people. This event occurred more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had formally freed slaves in Confederate states on January 1, 1863.

Granger read General Orders No. 3 which stated, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” (The order also advised newly-freed Black Americans to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages” as they and their “former masters’” relationship would become recognized as “that between employer and hired labor.”)

The name “Juneteenth” is a blend of “June” and “nineteenth.” It has been celebrated for over 150 years, originally among African American communities in Texas, and has since spread across the country. 

Segregation and Jim Crow laws led to a decline in the celebration of Juneteenth until its resurgence during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. It was established as a state holiday in Texas in 1980. In recent years, Juneteenth has gained greater recognition and was officially signed into law as a federal holiday in the United States by President Biden on June 17, 2021. The increased awareness and celebration of Juneteenth, thanks to decades of work by Black activists, highlights the holiday’s importance in American history as a symbol of freedom and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. 

The History of Juneteenth

June 19, 1865 is not the official day slavery was abolished in the US. That occurred after the passing of the 13th amendment. Mary Elliot, Curator of American slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) explained that it was not until December of 1865 that the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the rebel areas under the union and border states that still enforced it, officially ending slavery. 

However, formerly enslaved Black Americans from Texas, the last confederate state to enforce the emancipation proclamation,  celebrated the one year anniversary of the day they were finally informed of their freedom, June 19, 1866, and continued to celebrate it annually. Other Black Americans around the country began to celebrate their freedom on this day as well after Black Texans moved elsewhere and spread the tradition. That is how Juneteenth began being recognized as the symbolic day of freedom from slavery. 

The Emancipation Proclamation 

A key part of understanding “what is Juneteenth Day?”, is understanding what the emancipation proclamation is. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. It declared the freedom of all enslaved people in Confederate states that were in rebellion against the Union. The proclamation was issued in two parts:

  1. Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation: Announced on September 22, 1862, this proclamation warned that if the Confederate states did not cease their rebellion and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in those states would be declared free.
  1. Final Emancipation Proclamation: Issued on January 1, 1863, this final version declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the border states, rebel Union areas and parts of the Confederacy already under Union control.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free all enslaved people, it was an important step in the abolition of slavery. It was largely aimed at adding moral force to the Union cause to strengthen the Union both militarily and politically. It eventually led to the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution following the surrender of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, which formally abolished slavery throughout the United States in December 1865.

As previously stated, the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation did lead to the immediate freedom of all enslaved people. Union Army presence was needed to actually inform formerly enslaved Black Americans that they were freed and to enforce the proclamation. Without this enforcement, many slave captores hid this news from those they enslaved. That is why each state has its own independence day from slavery. Texas was the furthest west Confederate state under the Emancipation Proclamation, so it took the longest amount of time for the Union army to get there. 

The First Celebrations of Juneteenth

Beyond “what is Juneteenth day?”, here is how it is celebrated.  The initial celebrations of Juneteenth were community-based events that included prayer meetings, singing spirituals and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Formerly enslaved people and their descendants gathered in public spaces, often rural areas or church grounds, to commemorate their newfound freedom and to honor those who had suffered under slavery.

The early celebrations were marked by a sense of reflection and hope. Participants wore their best clothing to symbolize their liberation and dignity. Barbecues and feasts were common, with symbolically red foods such as barbecue, red soda water and strawberry pie, representing bloodshed, resilience and sacrifice.

Juneteenth also served as a time for family reunions, as many freed people sought to reconnect with relatives who had been sold away or separated during slavery. The day was filled with activities such as storytelling, games, and rodeos, reinforcing community bonds and preserving cultural traditions.

How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today

Despite facing racial discrimination and segregation, Black Americans continued to celebrate Juneteenth each year. It was a continued celebration and remembrance of the community’s successful resistance to brutal oppression. Over time, Juneteenth celebrations became more formalized with parades, speeches, cultural festivals and more. 

Modern Juneteenth festivities typically include parades, where participants celebrate African American heritage and freedom. Cultural festivals are common, featuring music, dance and performances that highlight the contributions of Black Americans to art, culture and society. Educational events and lectures are also held for Juneteenth to provide opportunities to learn about the history of slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement, as well as the ongoing struggle for equality. 

Family gatherings and community picnics are still central to Juneteenth celebrations, with people coming together to share red foods, stories and other traditions. In many places, community service projects are organized to honor the day, reflecting the holiday’s roots in community and collective effort. 

The celebration of Juneteenth has grown over the years, becoming a day not only to remember the past but also to inspire future generations to continue the pursuit of justice and equality.