What you need to know about Juneteenth

Juneteenth, now a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s. But in recent years, and particularly following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans, there is a renewed interest in the day that celebrates freedom. The celebration continues to resonate in new ways, given the sweeping changes and widespread protests across the U.S. over the last year and following a guilty verdict in the killing of Floyd. Here’s a guide to what you should know about Juneteenth.

What is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, about two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln.

The holiday received its name by combining June and 19. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”

How is it celebrated?

The original celebration became an annual one, and it grew in popularity over the years with the addition of descendants, according to Juneteenth.com, which tracks celebrations. The day was celebrated by praying and bringing families together. In some celebrations on this day, men and women who had been enslaved, and their descendants, made an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston.

Celebrations reached new heights in 1872 when a group of African American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park. The space was intended to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

Today, while some celebrations take place among families in backyards where food is an integral element, some cities, like Atlanta and Washington, hold larger events, like parades and festivals with residents, local businesses and more.

While celebrations in 2020 were largely subdued by the coronavirus pandemic, some cities this year are pressing forward with plans.

Galveston has remained a busy site for Juneteenth events over the years, said Douglas Matthews, who has helped coordinate them for more than two decades.

This month, the city will dedicate a 5,000 square-foot mural, titled “Absolute Equality,” on the spot where Granger informed enslaved African Americans of their freedom. The city will also mark the holiday with a parade and picnic.

Events and activities in Atlanta this year have been scaled back, but organizers have made plans for a parade and music festival at Centennial Olympic Park.

How did it become national holiday?

In 1980, Texas became the first state to designate Juneteenth as a holiday, though the recognition is largely symbolic. Since then, at least 45 states and the District of Columbia have moved to officially recognize the day. Last October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, both Democrats, signed into law legislation declaring Juneteenth holidays in their respective states. Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, also a Democrat, declared Juneteenth a state holiday starting in 2022, and legislators in Illinois approved a bill that would make it a paid day off for all state employees and a school holiday.

Amid last year’s unrest, many businesses moved toward marking it as a company holiday, giving many employees a paid day off. Twitter and Square, a mobile payment company, along with the NFL, Best Buy, Nike and Target all recognized Juneteenth last year.

Then this week, Congress voted overwhelmingly to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed the legislation on Thursday.

It is the first new federal holiday created by Congress since 1983, when lawmakers established Martin Luther King Jr. Day after a 15-year fight to commemorate the assassinated civil rights leader.

The congressional fight to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday was a relatively rapid affair. It was approved Wednesday by the House on a 415-14 vote just a day after the bill establishing the holiday moved quickly and unanimously through the Senate.

Why has Juneteenth become so important?

Following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police in May 2020, thousands of people around the United States poured onto the streets in protest. Floyd’s name, as well as the names of Taylor, Arbery and others, became rallying cries for change across the country.

Mark Anthony Neal, an African American studies scholar at Duke University, said there are some comparisons between the end of the Civil War to the unrest that swept the country, adding that the moment felt like a “rupture.”

“The stakes are a little different,” Neal said. “Many African-Africans, Black Americans, feels 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,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”

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