158 years ago, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to break the news to the last enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were now free. It then became a day of celebration in the years that followed, first in Texas and then throughout the United States.
The holiday is now recognized as an official holiday in Chicago and has been considered a federal holiday since President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in 2021.
The holiday has had even more significance since the public outcry over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The last few years saw the ongoing fight for racial justice across the country gain more and more momentum as Chicago and many other cities around the U.S. marched and rallied in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here are some things to know about the important day, what historian Blair Amadeus Imani calls “a time of remembrance, action, and celebration for Black lives.”
What does Juneteenth mean?
Juneteenth combines “June” and “nineteenth” into one word. June 19, 1865, is the day when enslaved people in Texas finally learned about their granted freedom.
It was about one month after the Civil War had ended and more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been signed.
What exactly happened on that date?
Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with a group of about 2,000 soldiers to tell the last enslaved African-Americans that they were free, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
“The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state, were free by executive decree,” they share on their website. “This day came to be known as ‘Juneteenth,’ by the newly freed people in Texas.”
He read General Order Number 3, which started with:
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation free enslaved peoples two years earlier?
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, and declared that every enslaved person in the Confederate States was now legally free. But, Texas, the furthest west territory, was still under Confederate control at the time. So, enslaved people there did not receive emancipation until the end of the war nearly two years later. The day celebrates the triumph, of course, but also shows how long it took for that freedom to be implemented in the far reaches of the Confederacy.
And even when the enslaved populations were freed, most were left without possessions, land, or resources to begin new lives with. “The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole,” the Museum writes.
“Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. Given the 200+ years of enslavement, such changes were nothing short of amazing.”
Is Juneteenth a national holiday?
Yes! It became an official federal holiday in 2021. It has been a state holiday in a handful of states, including Illinois, but it was not an officially recognized federal holiday for the majority of states until 2021. Juneteenth was also declared an official state holiday in Illinois named ‘National Freedom Day’ last year. “To commemorate the abolition of slavery throughout the United States and its territories in 1865, Juneteenth will be recognized as National Freedom Day in Illinois” read the official release on Illinois.gov at the time.
A bill to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday was unanimously backed by the Senate the same day and The House of Representatives then backed the legislation by 415-14 before it was sent to President Biden who enacted it into law on Thursday, June 17!
Juneteenth is now the 12th federal holiday and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was established in 1983.
What is Juneteenth’s flag?
The original Juneteenth flag was created by Boston activist Ben Haith, the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, in 1997.
The flag was revised in 2000 and illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf helped refine the design before the date “June 19, 1865,” was added to the flag in 2007 according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
The flag is red, white, and blue, echoing the colors of the United States flag. The blue and red symbolize that the former slaves and their descendants became free American citizens.
The star represents the “Lone Star State” of Texas where Juneteenth was first celebrated and General Gordon Granger arrived to tell the last enslaved African Americans that they were free.
The burst outline that surrounds the star symbolizes a new beginning for all, expansion, and growth. It is supposed to represent a supernova, an astronomical event that causes the appearance of a bright “new” star.
The arc represents a new horizon, collectively looking forwards and new opportunities for the Black community.
[Featured image from Shutterstock]