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

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday in the US but how and when did it start and what does it mean to Americans today?

Juneteenth: ¿cuál es su significado y dónde se originó el nombre?
MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty ImagesGetty

This weekend, across the United States, from north to south, east to west, millions of Americans will be celebrating Juneteenth. Also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Black Independence Day, for the first time, it will be a paid holiday for practically all state workers apart from those in California. While the official date for Juneteenth is 19 June, this year it falls on a Sunday so the festivities will take place the following day, Monday 20 June.

When did Juneteenth become a federal holiday?

Following petitions from Democrat US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Opal Lee the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’, who headed the campaign to designate Juneteenth as a legal, national holiday, a resolution was passed in Congress by unanimous consent on 15 June 2021 “to recognize June 19 1865 as the date on which news of the end of slavery reached the slaves in the Southwestern States”. Bill S.475 was subsequently passed by the House of Representatives the following day, then approved and signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday 17 June 2021.

The origins of Juneteenth

While this year marks the first time that Juneteenth will be celebrated as a national holiday, the day has been commemorated  to lesser or greater degrees, since 1866. Its history dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation three years earlier in September 1862 – the president’s order changed federal laws to effectively free around 4 million African-American slaves.

However, when Lincoln issued the preliminary order to free all of the men, women and children who had been held in slavery, the country was still involved in a Civil War – and the law applied only to slaves held in the Confederate slave States of the South. The free states (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York… etc) had technically abolished slavery much earlier (Congress had outlawed the importation of African the slave trade in 1808) but African-Americans continued to be enslaved in the slave states in the south - Delaware, Kentucky and Texas.

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19 June 1865: The Union Army enters Texas

That however, all changed on 2 June 1865 following the Confederate surrender in Texas. Two weeks later on 19 June, the Union Army, led by Major General Gordon Granger entered Texas and read General Order No.3 to the people of Galveston, declaring that all slaves (around 250,000) in the State, were now free.

General Order No.3

Union General Gordon Grange issued General Order No.3 on 19 June 1865 in Galveston, Texas and it appeared the following day in the local newspaper, the Galveston Tri-Weekly News: “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.”

The following year, celebrations were held on 19 June 1866 and the tradition has continued ever since. Juneteenth festivities originally included a prayer service, a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a feast of barbecued meat, pies and Texan red soda, games, rodeos and dances.

January 1980: Juneteenth declared a state holiday in Texas

Emancipation Day, marking the end of slavery, has been a state-sponsored holiday in Texas since 1980. Democratic Houston legislator Al Edwards drew up and submitted House Bill H.B. 1016-126 to Chief Clerk Betty Murray in February 1979. The bill was passed by the Senate and signed by Governor William P. Clements on 7 June 1979 and became effective as of 1 January 1980.

Other states followed suit but it wasn’t until June 2021 that Juneteenth legally became a federal holiday - the 12th of the calendar year. South Dakota became the last state to make 19 June a legal holiday in February of this year. As for most of the rest of the country, all federal government offices, courts, banks, post offices, schools, and financial markets will be closed. Many private employers are following suit, although they are not legally required to give employees time off.


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