Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. President Joe Biden signed legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, but do you know the true meaning behind it?
This historical event dates back to June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned they were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of Jan. 1, 1863, and all slaves in rebellious Southern states were free, it took more than two years for the news to spread to Texas and for officials there to announce slavery had been abolished. The holiday commemorating that day is known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day and/or Emancipation Day as it marks the day all Black people in the South were finally free. Slavery was outlawed nationwide with the ratification of the 13th Amendment six months later.
“For African Americans in the United States, [Juneteenth] truly is that independence day because prior to that, even though slaves had been freed in many of the other Confederate states, Texas remained a state where they continued to enslave folks,” says Greg Francis, 55, an attorney who focuses on civil rights. It’s important to understand the history and its impact because there’s a direct link to problems with systemic racism today, he says.
Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, in 1980. Others followed suit throughout the years, before the federal legislation making it a national holiday was signed into law in 2021 after passing unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by a vote of 415-14 in the House. Thanks to this, more Americans know about the holiday.
Approximately 6 in 10 Americans say they know “a lot” or “some” about Juneteenth, according to a 2022 Gallup poll, compared with 4 in 10 in 2021.
Whether you’ve known about Juneteenth your entire life or you’re just learning about this important day, it’s one everyone can commemorate. Here are eight ways to do so.
1. Learn the full history
Although June 19, 1865, marks Juneteenth, the end of slavery was not so clear-cut. That’s why it’s valuable to start by educating yourself and others about the full history of Juneteenth and the events leading up to it. The many resources available include the book Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison and the film Miss Juneteenth, this list of books to read with grandchildren about the holiday, and this video tour through the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Frederick Goodall, 53, from Houston says he has celebrated Juneteenth his entire life. It’s also his mother’s birthday, making the holiday doubly important in his family. He celebrates by attending parades and hosting a barbecue, like many others traditionally do. “It’s a celebration of freedom. It’s a celebration of what we’ve overcome,” Goodall says. “Just indulge yourself in the joy of that.”
Red is the color associated with the holiday, as it symbolizes sacrifice and transition. Celebrations typically include red foods such as red velvet cake, red beverages, watermelon and barbecued meats. Popular sides including corn bread, collard greens and cabbage represent prosperity, good fortune and wealth in Black history.