What is Juneteenth? A Look Inside The History, Celebration

Also known as Freedom Day, the Juneteenth holiday was not recognized by Texas as an official state holiday until 1980; on June 17, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday

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Juneteenth Facts

  • Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, is celebrated June 19
  • Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1979; the celebration originated in Galveston
  • Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of people enslaved in the United States.

Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, it was not enforced in the South until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

In 2021, on the 156th anniversary marking the end of slavery in the U.S., Juneteenth was officially made a federal holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day.

The effort for federal recognition took more than four decades and was accomplished in no small part due to the effort of Fort Worth's own Opal Lee. Known affectionately as "The Grandmother of Juneteenth," Lee made national recognition of the state holiday her life's work.

The effort for federal recognition of Juneteenth took more than four decades and was accomplished in no small part due to the effort of Fort Worth’s own Opal Lee. Known affectionately as “The Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee made national recognition of the state holiday her life’s work.

At the age of 94, on June 17, 2021, she finally saw her efforts realized when she stood alongside Vice President Kamala Harris as President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth, or June 19, the 11th federal holiday (12th if you count Inauguration Day every four years).

Over the decades, Juneteenth celebrations spread slowly across the United States and then internationally as Black Texans moved elsewhere.

In 2020, the push for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday gained momentum as protests against police brutality sparked a national reckoning over racism directed toward Black Americans.

The interest carried over into 2021 where the U.S Congress pushed a bill through with bi-partisan support to the president's desk where it was signed into law -- making it the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created.

Supporters of the holiday have worked to make sure Juneteenth celebrators don't forget why the day exists.

"In 1776 the country was freed from the British, but the people were not all free," Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. "June 19, 1865, was actually when the people and the entire country was actually free."

There's also sentiment to use the day to remember the sacrifices that were made for freedom in the United States -- especially in these racially and politically charged days. Said Para LaNell Agboga, museum site coordinator at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin, Texas: "Our freedoms are fragile, and it doesn't take much for things to go backward."

But what's the history behind the holiday and how do we celebrate?

What is Juneteenth?

Dating back to 1865, Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration remembering the end of slavery in the United States. On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. The proclamation wasn't officially recognized in Texas until two and a half years later, or on June 19 (the name Juneteenth comes from a melding of June and 19th).

When Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston he issued General Order Number 3, informing Texans the Civil War had ended two months prior and that the Emancipation Proclamation, signed years before, was now being enforced in the Lone Star State.

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.

Maj. Gen. Granger, Order No. 3

Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that the man she referred to as "old master" had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling the people he enslaved what had happened.

"Old master didn't tell, you know, they was free," Smalley said at the time. "I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That's why, you know, we celebrate that day."

Reactions from those who were freed ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation as they celebrated the end of 400 years of enslavement.

How is Juneteenth Celebrated?

From BBQ Cookouts to supporting Black-owned businesses, Juneteenth can be celebrated in a number of ways.

Traditional foods eaten on Juneteenth include a variety of soul food dishes and desserts such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, red velvet cake and other classics.

The color red is often used in foods prepared for Juneteenth observances as a way to remember the blood that was shed by African-Americans during slavery.

Early Jubilee celebrations focused on sharing stories of enslaved generations and the celebration of Black children who represented newfound freedom. Observances also focus on how far we've come as a nation but also how far we have yet to go when it comes to racial equality. In modern-day observances, members of the Black community and their allies often take part in marches and parades to spread awareness and continue the fight for racial equality more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Discover unique events across North Texas and celebrate the enriched culture of Juneteenth with NBC 5!

Where to Celebrate in 2021

Dallas Juneteenth Celebration Parade
When: Saturday, June 19 at 11 a.m.
Fair Park
For more information, visit: www.fairpark.org/events/detail/juneteenth-celebration-2021

Juneteenth Fort Worth Community Festival
When: Saturday, June 19 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
395 Purcey Street
For more information, visit: www.fortworth.com/event/juneteenth-ftw-community-festival/29770/

Dallas Juneteenth Community Bike Ride - Bike Ride for Freedom
When: Friday, June 18 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
4466 S. Marsalis Avenue
For more information, visit: www.oldworldnew.us/juneteenth-events-in-dallas-2021/

Learn more about the history of Juneteenth below.

NBC 5 and the Associated Press
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