Celebrating Juneteenth

This month, we celebrate and honor the fourth anniversary of Juneteenth. Designated in 2021 as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden, Juneteenth’s origins date back to June 19,1865, when those who were enslaved in Texas were finally able to exercise their freedom. Even though President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, it was not until this day that Union troops entered Galveston Bay, “where they announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day, sometimes referred to as “our country’s second Independence Day,” came to be known as “Juneteenth,” deriving its name from combining “June” and “nineteenth” (https://nmaahc.si.edu/juneteenth-digital-toolkit)

While June 19, 1865, marks a major milestone for our country, change did not occur overnight. Rather, decades of inequality, segregation, discrimination, and racism against Black Americans followed.  The 13th amendment abolished slavery but did not grant citizenship to former slaves. It was not until the ratification of the 14th amendment in 1868, that this changed. Then, finally in 1870, with the ratification of the 15th amendment, African American men were granted voting rights. In the decades that followed, Black communities celebrated Juneteenth as an informal holiday by taking annual pilgrimages to Galveston Bay and hosting family- and church-centered gatherings. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture:

“The celebrations spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on food festivals. Over the decades, many advocated the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday. Perhaps no two people promoted the commemoration more vigorously than activist and founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr., M.D. (1956–2018), and 96-year-old Texan and community leader Opal Lee, whom many consider the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth.’”

Myers and Lee became icons of the movement to declare Juneteenth a national holiday, with Myers kicking off the efforts and Lee picking them up following Myers’ passing in 2018. Lee began marching, collecting signatures, and gathering support for Juneteenth, and while she successfully got the holiday on the nation’s radar, it was not until two years later that it finally got the attention it deserved. This was due to the new social justice movement catalyzed by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of police in 2020. Lee marched again, petitioning for the federal recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday, and following her success in collecting more than 1.5 million signatures across the nation, President Biden officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday the following year on June 17, 2021. In response, Americans of every background celebrated through parties, festivals, and concerts. The holiday has gained popularity in the past few years, and while it is a day for celebration, it’s important to remember that it is so much more than that. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “It is a day for introspection, a platform for education, and a tribute to the monumental contributions of African Americans to the history of this nation.” While there has been so much progress related to social justice and equality, Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the ongoing fight for racial equality in America.  In the words of former President of the United States Barack Obama, “Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible—and there is still so much work to do.”