Black communities in greater Los Angeles and throughout the United States will observe Juneteenth with solemn memorials, spirited programs, singing and dancing, and a sense of jubilee.
The various celebrations, which will occur on Saturday, June 19, honor the end of slavery and the date that African Americans in the Confederate state of Texas learned that they were free, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
The rejoicing reached a higher level this week when the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It is the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Congress established Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Also, the bill was approved in record time, considering that the legislation process can be lengthy. It took nearly 15 years for King Day to be finalized. The Senate unanimously voted for Juneteenth on June 15, the House passed the bill the following day and President Joe Biden signed the holiday into law on June 17.
While welcoming the bill’s passage, Congresswoman Maxine Waters urged the Senate to move just as promptly to approve the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act.
In a statement, Waters wrote, “To put this moment into perspective, the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday happened in 1983 and we are still fighting for our civil rights. We are still waiting for Senate passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We are still waiting for lynching to be classified as a federal hate crime. We are still waiting for the terrorists who destroyed Black Wall Street during the Tulsa Race Massacre to be held accountable and we are still waiting for Black history to be accurately taught in our schools.
“As we celebrate the passage of this legislation, let us be clear that we will not be distracted or appeased and we will not simply accept Juneteenth as a federal holiday in exchange for real action that honors our history and our place in this country and moves us closer to achieving justice,” declared Waters.
“In the final analysis, it will be shown that platitudes and niceties are one thing but having courage and taking real action on this issue is another. Let us honor this day by working toward a nation in which Black lives and Black votes are protected and respected,” she concluded.
Juneteenth is perhaps the oldest African American holiday in the country. According to documents and oral histories, 250,000 Blacks in Texas were still enslaved when Union troops marched into Galveston Bay on June 19, 1865, and read the executive decree that granted freedom to the slaves. The day was eventually called Juneteenth, which some speculate is a combination of June and 19th, by the newly freed people.
The delay in telling the slaves that they were free was not uncommon at the time because, according to history.com, “the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t instantly free any enslaved people. The proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control. However, as Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many enslaved people fled behind Union lines.”
Even though Texas was part of the Confederacy, the state was not impacted by the decree and life continued as if the proclamation didn’t exist. Also, the Civil War was likely not at the top-of-the-mind among White Texans since there were not huge battles taking place nor was there a significant presence of Union troops. Therefore, the government operated as it always had – as a slave state.
But that situation came to an end once Union General Gordon Granger read General Orders No. 3 on June 19, 1865: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” History.com reports that “celebrations broke out among newly freed Black people, and Juneteenth was born.”
Starting in 1866, African American communities in Texas hosted a variety of annual celebrations for Juneteenth, which was initially called Jubilee Day and later referred to as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day and other names. Activities ranged from prayer services to picnics to parades and pageants. As people moved from Texas to other states, Juneteenth celebrations were instituted across the nation.
Juneteenth commemorations gradually declined in the early through the mid-20th century, a circumstance that historians attribute to the increase of Jim Crow laws (thus dampening the enthusiasm to celebrate freedom) and Blacks searching for work migrating from rural areas to urban locations, which provided fewer opportunities to take time off for festivities.
The modern civil rights era brought renewed interest in Juneteenth. Battlefields.org cites “the Poor People’s March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. [and carried out by Ralph Abernathy] was purposely scheduled to coincide with [June 19]. March participants took the celebrations back to their home states and soon the holiday was reborn.”
Currently, 48 states and the District of Columbia designate Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday. “Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs, and reading of works by noted African American writers. Celebrations can also take the form of rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests,” as recorded on battlefields.org.
Golden West College assembled a list of “Fun Facts About Juneteenth” on its website at goldenwestcollege.edu. The fun facts include:
– It is the oldest known holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the US.
– Juneteenth is the title of a book by Ralph Ellison, an African American author.
– Strawberry soda pop was once a popular drink associated with celebrating the day.
– The Juneteenth Flag of Freedom is half red and half blue with a star in the middle.