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Juneteenth: What to Know About the Newly Recognized Freedom Holiday

TheWrap offers a brief history lesson on Freedom Day, which commemorates the nation’s full abolition of slavery

“Happy Juneteenth!”

The holiday, which is recognized within the Black and African American community, has gained broader recognition in recent years, including in a first-season episode of FX’s “Atlanta,” when Monique, Craig and everyone else in their house celebrated with slave ship decorations and drinks named “plantation master poison.” 

Still, for many Americans there is much to learn about the new holiday. Many people of all races remain unsure of what Juneteenth is, mostly because not much is taught about the holiday in public schools.

Juneteenth, also referred to as Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, commemorates the total abolition of slavery in the U.S. that took place on June 19, 1865. Although President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation three years earlier — making slavery illegal by Jan. 1, 1863 — many enslaved people were still not free because slave owners in the south, and particularly Texas, neglected to tell the people they enslaved for months. In fact, many slave owners relocated the enslaved and plantations to Texas because it was viewed as a “safe haven” for their operations.

It took federal troops two and a half years to arrive in Galveston, Texas and take control of the state to ensure all the enslaved people were actually freed. 

This year, the day was commemorated officially, with President Joe Biden signing a bill that recognizes the day as a federal holiday. Previously, some states and employers recognized the day but it was on a very case-by-case basis. In 1979, Texas became the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. 

While the Senate unanimously passed the bill, the effort to designate Juneteenth as a national holiday has been met with criticism from both sides of the political spectrum and lawmakers on either side of the aisle.

14 Republicans voted against the bill, including Texas Rep. Chip Roy. Roy railed against the holiday in a Twitter thread where he claimed the holiday was too expensive and said, “As reverential as Juneteenth is, this is NO WAY to run the legislative branch of government.” 

Other critics of the holiday point out that while it is well-meaning, the gesture of granting Juneteenth federal recognition is just that — a gesture. Some people of color including Rep. Cori Bush point to reparations as a more meaningful way of paying back the descendants of enslaved people as restitution for the trauma their ancestors endured at the hands of white slavers.

Filmmaker and activist Bree Newsom pointed out the irony of Juneteenth legislation passing but voting rights legislation, which would ensure people of color can fairly and easily vote in upcoming elections, is still stalled.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday wouldn’t be so controversial to me if this were coming on the heels of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act at the very least,” Newsom said.

Newsom also noted, “I’m wary of resources & money being directed at campaigns for symbolic gestures & that becoming the new thing white liberals participate in instead of challenging structural racism.”

Actor DL Hughley questioned the efficacy of the holiday if it isn’t accompanied by education: “Wayment! They make #Juneteenth a federal holiday but don’t want teachers to talk about slavery? So when kids ask why are they celebrating, what do you tell them?”

Even Bernie Sanders weighed in and said, “Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday is an important moment in understanding our country’s history, and the horrors and lasting legacy of slavery. But real justice is when all Black Americans live free of oppression. That is not the work of a single day, but of every day.”

Slavery was officially outlawed in the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

On that fateful June 19, Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced that the enslaved people were no longer legally allowed to be kept as property of their owners. See his speech below.

“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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Back then, Juneteenth became a cause for celebration for Black Americans but was often met with opposition. Public property was often barred from being used for celebratory activities, but as blacks became landowners, property was donated in honor of the landmark date.

Freedom Day celebrations declined in the 1900s because of the Great Depression and textbooks that attributed the end of slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation rather than Juneteenth. However, the ongoing civil rights movement, coupled with recent events like the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, ignited a greater interest in the holiday.

The holiday is gaining more popularity in recent years. Lately media companies have endeavored to produce more content about Juneteenth, and increased the amount of programming that both educates about the day and uplifts Black creators.