Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a federal holiday of notable significance for many African Americans. June 19, 1865, not only marks the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas but it is also a historic moment in American history and the culmination of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that was written three years prior. Texas was resistant to the emancipation of slaves, but a military operation led by Union troops caused the end of slavery in the Lone Star state.
The country, of course, didn’t always recognize Juneteenth. A poll last year confirmed that very few Americans know much if anything at all about Juneteenth. While it’s likely that number has grown since then, it’s even more probable that there are still far too many Americans who don’t fully grasp what it took to turn what were once localized celebrations into the official status of a national observation months later.
The cultural impact of Juneteenth is a resounding reminder of the country’s ugly past regarding the enslavement of Blacks. The roots of the holiday started in the coastal Texas city of Galveston, which served as the theater for the Union’s seizure and possession of the state and still remains the central area where Juneteenth celebrations have continued for decades. Similar celebrations subsequently began sprouting throughout the state – and across the country – where celebrants were using the day as an opportunity to reflect on the rich history and contribution of African Americans to the fabric of the country.
Author Ralph Ellison would go on to pen much of his second novel, “Juneteenth,” around the events of the day. And while the book would be released posthumously five years after his death in 1999, a longer and more fleshed-out manuscript was released in 2010 as “Three Days Before the Shooting.”
Because of the oppressive specter of racism that still permeated much of American society, African Americans were barred from celebrating the holiday, especially around the start of the twentieth century. As the years of the Civil Rights Movement began to form, the celebrations would ramp up again across the nation. In 1994, civil rights and church leaders banded together at the Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans to reignite interest in the Juneteenth movement.
Juneteenth-related organizations fought hard for recognition of the holiday, resulting in a 2011 decision by the District of Columbia and 40 states declaring the day a state holiday. With June also serving as African American Music Appreciation Month (also known as Black Music Month), Juneteenth organizers would stage several jazz- and music-related events incorporating the theme of emancipation at the root.
The “Modern Juneteenth Movement” successfully got legislation passed to have the day recognized as a nationally observed holiday on June 19, 2021.