What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the oldest known commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the United States. A combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth is a U.S. federal holiday observed on June 19.

Though Juneteenth celebrations date back to the end of slavery and the Civil War, it was only officially recognized as a national holiday in 2021. Juneteenth is also a bank holiday.

The day is celebrated in many different ways, from family and community gatherings, picnics, and barbecues to parades, musical performances, and pageants, and many other local and regional traditions. Some communities have a dedicated location for Juneteenth celebrations, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, with land that was purchased specifically for the purpose. For many, Juneteenth is also an occasion to reflect, teach, and share conversations around Black and African American community and history, as well as the ongoing struggle for equality and freedom.

Key Takeaways

  • Juneteenth is an official public holiday and the oldest known commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
  • Juneteenth is a bank holiday.
  • Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, the first holiday to be created since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Understanding Juneteenth

June 19, 1865, was the day when the Union Army arrived in Texas, bringing news of emancipation with them. Though the Civil War had officially ended in April of that year with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, and about two and a half years had passed since President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, both military conflict and slavery persisted in areas where Confederate forces continued to resist. Often, it was not until the Union Army physically arrived to enforce emancipation that enslaved people were freed. This was the case in Florida and Virginia, as well as Texas.

Juneteenth is not only significant in the context of the Civil War. Today, it is both a celebration of the end of slavery and a recognition of the long history of oppression of African American and Black people in America.

African American Slavery in America

When European settlers arrived in the New World, their system of slavery came with them. By the early 1700s, most enslaved people in North America had been brought over from Africa, and the American colonies relied on their labor to produce valuable export crops, such as tobacco. After the American Revolution occurred and the Declaration of Independence was written, with its rhetoric of liberty and equality, the contradiction between the ideals of newly formed America and its system of slavery started to become evident.

The question of slavery’s legality and future began to divide the country between North and South and across state lines, especially since the Constitution was unclear as to slavery’s legal status. Arguably, this ambiguity could be considered one of the Civil War’s root causes, after slave states and free states struggled and failed to maintain a consensus on the future of the Union and the balance of power within it. Southern states, whose economies were agrarian and largely dependent on slavery, worried that the Union was working largely in favor of the industrially developed Northern states, which, broadly, did not need (and in some cases, outright opposed) slave labor.

For the South, the election of President Lincoln in 1860 (which was largely won by support from the Northern states) confirmed a lot of fears, especially around the potential abolition of slavery. In the months after the election, states began to secede from the Union. South Carolina was the first to secede, on Dec. 20, 1860.

Emancipation and Abolition

Abolishing slavery in the United States was a long, gradual process that took many cumulative pieces of legislation as well as the considerable efforts of grassroots movements and organizations, the press, and public petitions. Even before the Civil War, the question of slavery had been central to the nation-building of America, in both economic and legal terms.

As abolitionist movements grew, most Northern states began to phase out slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, as the Union continued to grow with the admission of new states, so too did the debate around the future of slavery. In 1820, the proposal to welcome the slave state of Missouri into the Union sparked national agitation, as it would upset the balance of congressional power between slave and free states.

Though addressed for a time by the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Maine as a free state to balance the number of free and slave states, the question of slavery’s future in the Union persisted, resurfacing continually as the nation expanded west and claimed new territory. This reached a particularly violent crisis in Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed the citizens of the two territories to vote on the future of slavery in the area.

The legal progress of abolition was further hindered by Dred Scott v. Sandford, an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enslaved people were not U.S. citizens and thus could not be protected by the courts or the federal government. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated the seizure and return of self-emancipated people who attempted to seek refuge in a different state and actively invoked penalties for federal marshals refusing to enforce the law, as well as fining anyone who assisted with emancipation.

However, the Civil War would eventually mean the end of slavery. In 1862, a year after the Civil War began, a series of resolutions and laws to do with emancipation and abolition were proposed or passed. However, these measures were effectively limited to jurisdictions over which the Union had power and influence, so they had varying degrees of success in attempting to end slavery once and for all. In this context, Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, was an ultimatum to the South. It stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State” that was “in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Unfortunately, the Emancipation Proclamation was often not enforceable in practice without the intervention of the Union military. As the Civil War continued, many enslavers fled to evade the path of the Union Army. As the slave state that was farthest west, many took up residence in Texas; at the time of the Union Army’s arrival in 1865, there were 250,000 enslaved people there.

On June 19, 1865, more than 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. On the same day, Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, declaring freedom for all enslaved people. The order informed the “people of Texas” that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Juneteenth and Other ‘Freedom Day’ Celebrations

Though Juneteenth is tied to the specific events of the date that it commemorates, symbolically, it can also be considered part of a lineage of official and unofficial “Freedom Day” celebrations for Black and African American people.

One of the earliest of these is the celebration of the end of the United States’ transatlantic slave trade on Jan. 1, 1808; another was New York’s abolition of slavery on July 4, 1827 (though the celebration date was changed to July 5 as a statement of critique toward Independence Day). National Freedom Day, celebrated on Feb. 1, commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the United States.

As a commemoration of the end of slavery, Juneteenth is also an occasion on which to reflect on other historical struggles and victories, as well as progress still to be made. Though largely a Southern holiday until well into the 20th century, the number of Juneteenth celebrations grew as it was recognized by more and more communities, largely through the efforts of Black and African American activists and community organizers.

On June 17, 2021, the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act officially made it a national holiday.

Juneteenth vs. Emancipation Day

In Texas, Juneteenth and Emancipation Day are the same day. In other states, the end of slavery is commemorated on the specific date when emancipation began there, including: 

  • Virginia (Richmond) (April 3)
  • Washington, D.C. (April 16)
  • Florida (May 20)
  • Texas (June 19)

Notably, though April 16 is a public holiday for Washington, D.C., holidays observed there have the same effect as federal holidays on tax deadlines. Therefore, Emancipation Day can affect the tax filing deadline for the entire nation, because April 16 falls close to Tax Day.

Other states recognize the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as Ohio, which celebrates on Sept. 22.

Special Considerations

Juneteenth is a bank holiday, meaning that banks are closed on June 19 if the date falls on a weekday. If Juneteenth falls on a weekend, the preceding Friday or following Monday is observed as a holiday “in lieu,” instead of on June 19, for the purposes of leave and pay for federal employees.

As with many other federal holidays, Juneteenth is recognized as a holiday for the stock market, with both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq observing it.

For state employees in Illinois, New York, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and 13 other states, Juneteenth is an official paid holiday.

Though an increasing number of private employers are starting to offer paid time off since it was made an official holiday, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) 2020 Employee Benefits Survey, only 8% of organizations offered a paid holiday on June 19 in 2020. Of that 8%, 96% of companies only began offering it as a paid holiday in 2020, largely due to increased awareness and calls for more diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Is Juneteenth a federal holiday?

Juneteenth, or June 19, is a federal holiday. If Juneteenth falls on a weekend, the preceding Friday or following Monday is observed as a holiday in lieu for the purposes of leave and pay for federal employees.

Is Juneteenth a state holiday?

Juneteenth officially became a Texas state holiday on Jan. 1, 1980. From then to 2021, the 49 other states and the District of Columbia have also passed legislation to make it a holiday or observance; the year of recognition varies by state.

What is the difference between Juneteenth and Emancipation Day?

In Texas and several other states, they are the same thing: a holiday on June 19 that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people. In other places, such as Washington, D.C., Florida, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., Emancipation Day is celebrated as a separate holiday.

What are some other names for Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth National Independence Day, Black Independence Day, and Second Independence Day.

Article Sources
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