What is Juneteenth? Meaning and history of new US federal holiday, when is it in 2021, and name explained

Juneteenth is the first new US national holiday since the creation of Martin Luther King Holiday in 1986

The American celebration of Juneteenth has officially been recognised by the White House as a federal holiday, under the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

President Joe Biden signed the act into law on 17 June, and he said that doing so is “an enormous, enormous honour”.

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But what exactly is Juneteenth - and why has it been made a federal holiday?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds a bill enrollment signing ceremony for the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds a bill enrollment signing ceremony for the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a day that commemorates the end of slavery in America, celebrated each year on 19 June.

On 19 June 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, were told that they were free. The date is considered by many to be the end of slavery, as it was the day that slaves held by the last remaining state were liberated.

While Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it wasn’t actually enforced in Galveston until 1865, when Union soldiers arrived with the news.

Generally, enforcement of the proclamation depended on the advance of Union troops, and as Texas was the most remote of the slave states and had the lowest presence of said Union troops, freedom came slowly.

The first celebration of Juneteenth happened the following year, in 1866, as it marked the anniversary of the day that enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Over the next few years, more and more states started joining in on celebrations, making it an annual tradition across the country.

The name Juneteenth comes from the date it occurs on - June and 19th.

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How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Celebrations and traditions surrounding Juneteenth can vary from state to state across America.

Typical celebrations include public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, rodeos, fishing, parades, religious services and singing songs.

Food also plays an important role in Juneteenth celebrations - the Juneteenth website says: “Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop.

“More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors – the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies.

“Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the centre of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.”

It adds that food was abundant because “everyone prepared a special dish”.

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How did it become a federal holiday?

The process of officially declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday has actually been decades in the making.

Many states across American already formally recognise Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday, with South Dakota being the last remaining state to do so.

Prior to becoming President of the United States, Barack Obama, a senator of Illinois, co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth into a national holiday, however, the law never passed, even after being elected President.

In 2016, Opal Lee, at 89 years old, walked from Texas to Washington DC in an effort to encourage lawmakers to recognise Juneteenth.

Lee, who is often referred to as the “grandmother of Juneteenth”, walked two and a half miles every day, which represented the two and a half years it took for those enslaved in Texas to learn that they were free.

Lee, who was present when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, said: “I’ve got so many different feelings all gurgling up in here.

“I don’t know what to call them all. I am so delighted to know that suddenly we’ve got a Juneteenth.

“It’s not a Texas thing or a black thing. It’s an American thing.”

This year, on 15 June, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act and was subsequently passed through the House of Representatives by a 415-14 vote on 16 June.

What did Joe Biden say?

Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Thursday 17 June.

Biden said: “Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, and a promise of a brighter morning to come. This is a day of profound — in my view — profound weight and profound power.

“A day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take — what I’ve long called “America’s original sin”.”

Biden said that Juneteenth would be commemorated “for what it ought to be”, which is a national holiday.

It is the first new national holiday in America since the creation of Martin Luther King Holiday, which was introduced nearly four decades ago.

Biden said that by making Juneteenth a federal holiday, “all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress”.

He added: “I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honours I will have had as President.”