The recent protests and calls for changes to policing and racism in the U.S. have brought new attention to the Juneteenth holiday, but many Americans don’t know what the date celebrates.
While the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and freed enslaved people in the Confederacy, many states and slaveholders refused to follow the proclamation or simply hadn’t heard the news yet. In Texas, emancipation didn’t occur until June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived and issued an order declaring “all slaves are free.”
After the order, the newly freed black men and women in Texas still faced challenges as many Texans resisted the change and refused to obey the order. “In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, ‘Juneteenth,’ beginning one year later in 1866,” wrote Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a PBS article.
Juneteenth continues to be celebrated today.
“Juneteenth is celebrated because it marks the day when all enslaved people in the United States actually knew about emancipation which then meant it could be reinforced,” said Leslie Hadfield, BYU Africana Studies program coordinator and history professor.
Another BYU history professor, Rebecca de Schweinitz, said in her research she has found that formerly enslaved black writers viewed freedom as a collective goal rather than an individual one, so “that black Americans chose to celebrate June 19, rather than other dates associated with the end of slavery, makes sense.”
“Freedom had meaning when it was shared with beloved family and other social connections. As long as one family member, one person in their social network was still enslaved, freedom was incomplete,” she said.
Many black BYU students said they just recently started celebrating Juneteenth but are glad Americans in general are becoming more familiar with the date. BYU student Alexandria Byrd said Juneteenth is a day to celebrate freedom. “The Fourth of July is nice and all, but Juneteenth represents the day when we were all free, not just white people.”
Byrd added that she hopes the day becomes an official holiday in America “because it would show respect for black Americans whose ancestors built this country.”
Multiple companies across the country have recently decided to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, including Nike and Target.
Professor de Schweinitz said she hopes these companies do more than symbolically celebrate the day by making changes to racist policies and providing resources for employees to learn more about these issues.
“What we choose to commemorate, whether it be Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Day, can shape our collective understanding of the past, signal what matters in the present, and influence where we are headed in the future. But they can also be a way for us to avoid more direct confrontations with current issues,” she said.