HOLIDAY NEWS

Juneteenth: what is the significance and where did the name originate?

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery int the US. Our team put together a quick explainer for those interested in learning more.

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Juneteenth: what is the significance and where did the name originate?
OLIVER CONTRERAS / POOL EFE

Tomorrow 19 June, is Juneteenth an important holiday in the United State, particularly for the Black community. Juneteenth, also known as Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day, celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. This year, Juneteenth became a federal holiday through the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which passed unanimously in the Senate on 15 June 2021.

After the Civil War, freed slaves and free Black people in the US began celebrating June the Nintheeth, which over time became Juneteenth. For Black people in the United States, the holiday represents an opportunity to celebrate their history and culture.

This story behind Juneteenth 

Many in the US believe that slavery ended after Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation a made in 1962, however, Texas and many other rebel states ignored the change in the law. During the war, the enforcement of the proclamation fell to Union Army soldiers, but when their presence was lacking, many of those enslaved remained unaware that they were actually free. The day commemorates when after the American Civil War, Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed that all slaves in Texas were free on June 19, 1865.

The official end of slavery came after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment which states that in the “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Oppression continues

Reconstruction, the period that followed the Civil War, was rife with violence, oppression, and discrimination for Black Americans. While slavery was outlawed, sharecropping allowed former slaveowners to exploit formally enslaved people and their children for decades. Sharecropping is reminiscent of feudal exploitation wherein a landowner can rent out land at prices that make profits for those who work the land nearly impossible.

Additionally, in 1986, the US Supreme Court decision in Plessy versus Ferguson allowed states to legalize segregation so long as services provided were "Equal." 

This historic case meant that governments at the local and state level could segregate by race so long as both groups had “equal access and treatment.” This of course became very popular during the Jim Crow era in the South, where nearly all public spaces were segregated, with the government not living up to its obligation of equal treatment under the law.  While this decision was overturned in 1954 through the Brown versus Board of Education case, the lasting impact of the decision is still being felt today.

Mixed emotions on the recognition of Juneteenth as a Federal holiday

With the federal recognition of the holiday comes mixed emotions for racial justice advocates. While pleased that after 156 years the federal government is recognizing the importance of the date, legal efforts to undermine the education of racial justice are occurring in parallel. The newest buggy man for GOP members in states across the US? Critical race theory.

In an interview with NBC Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines, said “Any anti-racist effort is being labeled as critical race theory.” Dr. Chism argued that the move is based on an ignorant understanding of the material saying “Many that are condemning critical race theory haven’t read it or studied it intensely. This is largely predicated on fear: the fear of losing power and influence and privilege,” he said. “The larger issue that this is all stemming from is a desire to deny the truth about America, about racism.”

Activists and journalists, Astead W. Herndon of the New York Times, have said on social media that the recognition of Juneteenth at the federal level is undercut by these efforts which make it more likely that students in the US do not understand the significance of the holiday.