A BRIEF HISTORY OF JUNETEENTH AND WHY WE MUST RECOGNIZE IT AS A FEDERAL HOLIDAY

Women marching in a Black Lives Matter Protest in June 2020. Courtesy of Pexels.com.

Across the country, Juneteenth, a national holiday immortalizing June 19, 1865, the day on which all enslaved people in Texas were freed, has seen a recent public resurgence. Following the police killings of Black citizens Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, amongst others, and subsequent worldwide protests, our country has placed a renewed emphasis on the eponymous date; and for good reason.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had become official about two and half years prior to Juneteenth, on January 1 of 1863. However, in Texas, one of the largest slave states at the time, the proclamation was very poorly and inconsistently enforced. In fact, an estimated 150,000 slaves were relocated to the state after Union troops captured New Orleans, Louisiana in 1862.

Emancipation Proclamation, image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The proclamation’s minimal influence was due to a number of factors, including the ambiguity surrounding Lincoln’s authority in Texas at the time, the ongoing civil war, low Union troop presence in the state, and numerous political rumors like federal troops wanting to get one last cotton harvest out of the un-freed slaves. Some even believed that the messenger sent to Texas with the news of freedom was murdered, or that the message was deliberately withheld from slave owners. That said, when the famous date of June 19, 1865 finally arrived, Major General Gordon Grander led Union troops into Galveston, Texas to announce the news of the war’s end and to read General Order Number 3, which according to Juneteenth.com read as follows:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Juneteenth, widely considered to be America’s second day of independence, has been celebrated in a number of ways all over the US since 1866. Communities celebrate with family gatherings, picnics (food is an integral part of the celebration), and in many cities, parades and marches. Some family descendants of slaves have even made annual journeys to Galveston in commemoration.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declares “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” in 2019. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today, all but three states recognize Juneteenth in some capacity. Only Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota do not acknowledge the date. While the holiday, also known as Emancipation Day, is not formally recognized equally across the country, several state governments have stepped up to acknowledge its importance. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced on Tuesday that Juneteenth would now be an official city holiday, while Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared his intention to propose legislation to make the day a paid state holiday. On Wednesday, June 17th, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared Juneteenth an official holiday for employees in New York. Many corporations, such as Twitter & SquareLyftTargetAdobe and Postmates, have even announced that they are treating the day as a paid company holiday. Google has also added Juneteenth to its holiday calendar.

Juneteenth has been celebrated for years. Here, a reserve deputy commander addresses youth about to march in a celebratory Juneteenth parade in San Fransisco, 2006. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If President Trump’s initial plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma (the location of one of the most brutal and deadly racist episodes of violence in our history) have indicated anything, it is that it is not too late to formally recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Why we honor the colonizing Christopher Columbus with a federal holiday commemorating his atrocities, and not the freedom of slaves across the nation surely baffles. This Friday, self-reflect, as many have been doing for the last few weeks of protests, and celebrate this monumental day in American history.

A modern flag variation of the Juneteenth flag. Designed by Mike Tré. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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