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Why is Juneteenth a Federal Holiday?

men in chains - why Juneteenth is a federal holiday

On June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making June 19th the eleventh federal holiday in the United States. It was the first new federal holiday since Martin Kuthr King, Jr Day was established in 1983. But, why is Juneteenth a federal holiday and why does it matter so much, especially today?

Juneteenth Independence day
Juneteenth Independence Day (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Juneteenth Explained

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. In it, he declared that “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states to be free.” The proclamation was welcomed by northern abolitionists, while southern slave owners ignored it. 

The proclamation was a positive first step towards liberty for all Americans. But, it was not enough, and the end of slavery required a constitutional amendment. This was passed in January 1865. Then, following the surrender of Robert E. Lee in April 1865, the news that America’s Black people were no longer slaves had to be carried to the remote corners of the South. 

The news that slavery had ended didn’t make its way to Texas until mid-June of 1865. On June 19th, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and personally delivered the news. He issued a statement that read …

The people of Galveston 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 employers and hired labor.

Gordon Granger

There was a lot of celebration among the African American community at the time. June 19th became their Independence day.

A hundred and fifty years later, June 19th is a day of remembrance and celebration. The day has been celebrated around the country with music, food, and fellowship for many years before it gained official status as a federal holiday. 

How Juneteenth Developed

Juneteenth: What You Need to Know | History

As African Americans left the south in the post-Civil War years to pursue opportunities in the North, they took the celebration of Juneteenth with them. As a result, the remembrance evolved from being a solely Texas-based celebration to a nationwide one. People in all states gathered with family, friends, and local communities. 

As well as celebrating the end of slavery, the Black community remembered the terrible struggles of ancestors who were forced to endure that horrible crime against humanity. New traditions were also created around the Juneteenth celebration that allowed people to reflect on the struggle for civil rights and the ongoing struggle against racism.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to officially recognize the Juneteenth holiday. By 2006, fifteen states had recognized the holiday. By 2019, that number had grown to 47 states, and the District of Columbia. By 2020, however, Texas was the only state that had adopted Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees.

Why Juneteenth Matters So Much Today

The celebration of Juneteenth has also appeared in popular culture, especially during the 1980s and 90s. In 1999, Ralph Ellison published the novel ‘Juneteenth’, which increased public recognition of the holiday. Black History Month has also been an opportunity to educate the wider community about Juneteenth. 

In the wake of the Geroge Floyd murder and subsequent protests, nine states adopted Juneteenth as a paid holiday. 

For many decades, activists and members of Congress pushed for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. In 1996, the first federal legislation to recognize Juneteenth Independence Day was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Over the next two and a half decades, activists continued to press Congress toward official recognition of the date as a federal holiday. 

In 2016, Opal Lee, a retired teacher, who is considered ‘the grandmother of Juneteenth, walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. to advocate for a law making Juneteenth a national federal holiday. 

Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden included the making of Juneteenth a national federal holiday part of their platforms. Spurred on by a growing number of advocates, including the Congressional Black Caucus, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 15th, 2021, which established Juneteenth as a federal holiday, to be observed on June 19th. The bill was signed into law by President Biden two days later.

The bill states that federal government employees will have a paid holiday every year of June 10th, If that date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, they will get the Monday or Friday closest to June 19th as a paid holiday. 

Juneteenth Facts

Perhaps the biggest misconception about Juneteenth is that June 19th was the date that slavery was ended in the United States. In fact, the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, was passed in the Senate on April 8th, 1864. It passed the House on January 31st, 1865. 

Juneteenth actually celebrates the knowledge that slavery had ended. However, it is important to understand that the conditions that existed after the official end of slavery, mirrored slave-like conditions for many years. These included the Jim Crow system, the suppression of civil rights, and ongoing blatant racism against African Americans. 

Juneteenth is one of five date-specific federal holidays in the United States. The others are New Year’s Day (January 1st), Independence Day (July 4th), Veteran’s Day (November 11th), and Christmas Day (December 25th). The Juneteenth holiday falls within the statutory Honor America Days period, which lasts for 21 days from Flag Day (June 14th) to Independence Day on July 4th. 

The Juneteenth holiday reminds all Americans of where we have come from. It also inspires us to think about the places we want to go. 

Why Juneteenth Matters

Woman celebrating Juneteenth with flag waving behind her
Juneteenth Parade (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865. Still, the struggle for civil rights continues to this day. Juneteenth is important because it gives all Americans a sense of encouragement and inspiration to continue to fight for freedom. As a federally mandated holiday, Juneteenth also encourages people to look back at the past and learn more about African American history. 
How to celebrate Juneteenth: This is an opportunity for us all to commit to a more united nation. Individually we can make the resolve to treat one another with impartiality and dignity and act with justice in our community. At the same time, we should look back at our past in a deeper and more meaningful way.