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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the oldest, nationally-celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. I can remember as a girl the celebrations in Texas where the date has been commemorated for many years. Parks were always overflowing with lots of people, picnicking, playing music and celebrating the day.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated across the nation. On June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Why June 19th?

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official January 1, 1863 so why isn't this the date of celebration? Believe it or not, it wasn't until June 19, 1865 – 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation – that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.

Why the two plus year delay? Nobody is really sure, but there are several stories that have been passed down over the years. One is that a messenger on his way to Texas with the news of freedom was murdered. Another story is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to keep the slaves working on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true.

Former Texas slaves continued to celebrate the special date, nicknaming it Juneteenth. Many left Texas and moved North, taking the stories of that magical day in 1865 with them, spreading the celebration outside of the Lone Star state. The celebration became an important time to be with family, to remember the past and to support one another through the early difficult post slavery years. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

Celebrating Juneteenth

Like many special holidays, Juneteenth is often associated with the gathering of families and friends over a meal. Certain foods became popular and synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as barbecue and strawberry soda. Many brought a special dish to share often featuring meats such as lamb, pork and beef which were not available everyday.

From the website: Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition’s roots. During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers and adorning themselves with clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters’.

The Growth of the Holiday

The Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s saw Juneteenth gaining attention nationally with two of the biggest celebrations in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but Texas was always the true center of the holiday.

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.

The holiday has spread nationally and, today, Juneteenth is celebrated across the country. It celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures

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