What You Need to Know About Juneteenth

155 years after the last of the enslaved African-Americans were freed, Juneteenth celebrations commemorating that fateful day have taken on a whole new meaning.

By Billy Nilles Jun 19, 2020 7:00 AMTags
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"(On) July 4, 1776, not everybody was free and celebrating their Independence Day. So here's our day. And if you love us, it'll be your day, too."

That's how Pharrell Williams addressed the press in his home state of Virginia on Tuesday, June 16, according to The Virginian Pilot, as he appeared alongside Gov. Ralph Northam during a press conference in which the governor proposed making June 19—or Juneteenth, as it's commonly referred to—an official legal holiday in the state.

With the nation examining its history of racial inequality as protesters calling for police reform continue to fill the streets, appeals to recognize the significance of Juneteenth more fully have been growing. In the lead-up to this year's celebrations, a number of companies—including Nike, the National Football League, Twitter and more—have announced that the day will now be a company holiday. But for some, the history of the day Black Americans have long since celebrated as the time slavery officially ended in this country remains unclear.

Here's everything you need to know about Juneteenth.

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What Is Juneteenth?

Though the holiday is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the day slavery was abolished in America, that's not quite it. Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865 arrival of Gen. Gordon Granger and Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas to announce to the remaining enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger's appearance came some two and a half years after The Emancipation Proclamation was actually signed by President Abraham Lincoln and made official on January 1, 1863. However, until Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee finally surrendered in April 1865, there weren't enough Union troops available to enforce the Proclamation in the seven Confederate States, leaving Texas the westernmost holdout, a place for slaveholders to continue their evil practice for as long as possible.

In short, Juneteenth celebrates the day the last of the enslaved African-Americans were finally freed.

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How Is Juneteenth Celebrated?

Known also as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth celebrations began on the day's first anniversary and quickly became annual, but ensuing segregation laws worked to keep festivities off public land, pushing them into rural areas, according to Juneteenth.com. Wherever they were, the website explains, the day involved bringing families together to celebrate with prayer and barbecues. Some freed African-Americans and their descendants even made a pilgrimage back to Galveston to honor the occasion.

As members of the Black community eventually became land owners themselves, property was donated and dedicated to these particular festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth occurred in 1872 when, according to Juneteenth.com, Rev. Jack Yates raised enough funds to purchase 10 acres of land in Houston, creating Emancipation Park. 

Cliff Robinson, the founder of the website, told NBC News that, today, Juneteenth celebrations are held in most, if not all, states. In the South, especially, these celebrations "traditionally involve events such as picnics, rodeos, religious components like church ceremonies, and education and historical services for children," Robinson said.

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Is Juneteenth a National Holiday?

In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. And while 46 states and the District of Columbia have followed Texas' lead since then, most designations are largely symbolic. However, this year has seen both Gov. Northam of Virginia and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York propose legislation to make the Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees beginning in 2021. 

And yet, the day has fallen short of reaching national holiday designation. In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution declaring June 19 as "Juneteenth Independence Day," but, as of press time, it still had not reached the House of Representatives. 

Regardless, several major corporations have moved to recognize the day as a company holiday this year. Nike, the NFL, Postmates, Twitter and Spotify are but a few of the companies who are now observing the day. CNBC has a full list of those companies who have begun to incorporate Juneteenth into their annual list of holidays.

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Why Has Juneteenth Seen an Increase in National Headlines This Year?

The national reckoning on racial inequality, brought about by nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more, has effectively re-energized the Black Lives Matter movement with a markedly higher level of support from non-Black citizens than ever before. As such, Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American Studies scholar at Duke University, told The New York Times that this moment feels like a "rupture."

"The stakes are a little different," he told the newspaper. "Many African-Africans, Black Americans, feel as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard in a way across the culture. I think Juneteenth feels a little different now. It's an opportunity for folks to kind catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we've seen over the last couple of weeks."

As Pharrell Williams put it in Virginia earlier this week, "This is a chance for our government, our corporations, our cities to all stand in solidarity with their African American brothers and sisters. This year, Juneteenth will look like no other Juneteenth before it."

"From this moment on, when you look up at the vastness of the night sky and you see stars moving up there, know that those stars are our African ancestors dancing," the musician added. "They're dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being recognized."