A year since racial justice rallies swept the country, sparking discussions about how to better conditions for Black lives, the nation is gearing up to commemorate the 156th anniversary of one of its oldest liberation moments: Juneteenth.
Juneteenth, a combination of the terms "June" and "nineteenth," marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned for the first time that they were free from the institution of slavery. However, this occurred more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Juneteenth celebrates independence, it also commemorates the delayed emancipation of enslaved individuals in the confederacy's deepest shadows.
The inaugural Juneteenth, in 1866, was marked by eating, singing, and the reading of spirituals, and it recognized newly freed Black people taking satisfaction in their achievements. Today, Juneteenth celebrations happen globally, with the worldwide diaspora adopting the day to commemorate liberation in general.
After being disregarded in schools, awareness of the day has expanded in recent years, particularly in light of the current context demand for justice for Black deaths — a new Gallup poll indicated that most Americans now know about Juneteenth. Just this week, Congress passed legislation designating Juneteenth as a national holiday. After Joe Biden signed a bill into law on Thursday, the United States will formally recognize Juneteenth, which marks the abolition of slavery in America, as a federal holiday.
At a joyous White House ceremony, the president underlined the importance of confronting the country's history, even if it is shameful.
“Great nations do not forget their most traumatic moments,” Biden declared before declaring Juneteenth National Independence Day. “Great nations do not abandon their responsibilities. We come to terms with our mistakes. And as we recall those times, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
“I have only been president for a few months, but I think this will go down as one of the greatest honors I have had as president,” Biden said just before signing the bill.
Kamala Harris, who was also present, focused on the notable importance of the day and the presence of Black politicians who worked tirelessly to get the bill forward.
Harris, the first Black vice president, informed those assembled at the White Mansion for the bill signing, "We are gathered here in a house created by enslaved people." We are only a few steps from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We're here to see President Joe Biden declare Juneteenth a national holiday. We've gone a long way, and we still have a long way to go, but today is a day to celebrate.” She stated.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, liberating slaves in the final rebel state. The emancipation proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, but not enforced in Galveston until federal soldiers read it aloud on June 19, 1865.
Black Americans are ecstatic by the move, but many believe that more, should be done, to confront systematic racism.
Republican-led states have approved or are debating legislation that campaigners argue would restrict people of color's right to vote. Legislation to address voting rights issues and implement policing reforms needed in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans remains delayed in the Congress that acted quickly on the Juneteenth bill.
“It is fantastic, but it is not enough,” Gwen Grant, president, and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas city said. “We need Congress to defend voting rights right now so that we do not regress any further,” she continued. “That is the essential issue Congress can solve right now.”
The federal recognition of Juneteenth comes when Republican politicians around the country are moving to prohibit schools from teaching kids “critical race theory,” the history of slavery, and the ongoing effects of systematic racism.
The law was passed by the Senate earlier this week, but 14 Republicans, voted against it.
The majority of federal employees will be off on Friday. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, DC, and Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, all stated that state and local government offices will be closed on Juneteenth. Public schools in the District of Columbia will also be closed on Friday.
Before becoming a federal holiday on June 19, it was observed, in the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday. Residents in Texas praised their state's role in the historic moment.
“I am as happy as a clam,” said Doug Matthew, 70, a former Galveston city manager who has helped arrange the community's Juneteenth celebrations since Texas declared it a holiday.
He commended state and local officials with laying the path for Congress's action this week.
“I'm also proud that it all started in Galveston,” Matthew added.
On Thursday, Pete Henley, 71, sets up tables for a Juneteenth celebration at the Old Central Cultural Center, a Galveston structure, previously a segregated Black school. He stated that the Juneteenth holiday would serve in the promotion of understanding and unity.
He said his ancestors were enslaved men and women in the Texas city who were among the last to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“More than anything else, as a country, we need to strive for togetherness,” Henley added. “It would be so wonderful if we could just learn to love each other.”
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