Juneteenth (historically known as Jubilee Day) is the oldest celebration that commemorates the emancipation of slavery in the United States. Yet, the meaning and historical significance of Juneteenth remains a mystery to many. Most do not identify Juneteenth as American history, only Black history. However, it is critical to understand Juneteenth’s correlation to American history, the events that led to Juneteenth and the prolonged battle for equality that continues today. Let's dive in!
Slavery: American History That Is Often Overlooked
Before we can talk about Juneteenth, it is important to understand the events that led to Juneteenth becoming a celebration. Often, when people talk about Juneteenth, they talk about Freedom Day but they fail to mention three historical facts.
#1 – The biggest conflict that created the American Civil War of 1861 was slavery. Decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery is what ignited the war. This, in addition to states’ rights and westward expansion. The conflict began when Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the U.S. and opposed slavery. This caused several southern states to branch off from the United States of America and form the Confederate States of America (most commonly known as the Confederacy). The primary goal of the Confederacy was to secure independence from the north to maintain slavery and economic power through free labor.
#2 – During the American Civil War, the United States fought against the Confederate States of Americas to abolish slavery and won on April 9, 1965. At that time, Confederates surrendered, and the United States regained control of the southern states that fought to preserve the Confederacy. The conflict was the costliest and deadliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and much of the South left in ruin. Many of these soldiers included slaves.
#3 – On September 22, 1862, during the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed an Emancipation Proclamation calling an end to slavery. The proclamation declared “slaves would be free as of January 1, 1863”. However, the abolishment of slavery was not written into law until 1865, under the 13th Amendment. Between 1863 (when the proclamation was written) and 1865 (when the civil war ended), some slaves did gain their freedom. But the majority remained enslaved until the 13th Amendment was signed. At which time, union soldiers would finally make their way around the United States to inform slaves of their freedom. The last round of slaves were informed on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. It was not until that moment that these slaves learned they were free and had been declared free for two years. Because of that, June 19th would forever be known as “Freedom Day” and was later coined "Juneteenth."
Official Juneteenth Flag
Juneteenth: Now a Federal Holiday
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. While this is a date to celebrate and remember, it comes with many mixed feelings. On one hand, it is long overdue. Especially when you consider that slavery was abolished 156 years ago and it is one of the worst, if not the worst, crime against humanity in world history. On the other hand, it feels like a consolation prize. Something that you give to someone that did not “win,” but you feel sorry for them, so you want them to “at least” be recognized.
This is a fair conclusion to draw when you consider that slavery is the biggest event in American history that still negatively impacts African Americans today, impeding their ability to achieve equal rights and economic power. Overt racism, discriminatory policing, unjust imprisonment, unequal civil rights, absence of critical race theory in history books, and lack of access to education are among the inequitable factors that still stifle African Americans today. In contrast, slavery is the key component of American History that has allowed white Americans to prosper and build generational wealth, power, and privilege over the last 402 years. Much of what holds African Americans back, while pushing white Americans forward, is the same – a political system and structure designed to oppress one group while supporting the unfair advantages of another.
In short, this new federal law feels like “hush money.” Something that you pay a person to be quiet. Because let’s be honest, since George Floyd was murdered last year, African American’s have marched, protested, and used their voices in ways that resembled the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. The only difference is, it is impossible to silence African American’s today because social media allows injustice, inequities, and racial crimes to be seen in real time. Making the continued impact of slavery more obvious and apparent in today’s society, by showing that our past continues to be our present. But still we rise…
FACT: Did you know that Juneteenth has an official flag? The flag was created in 1997 by Ben Haith, an American activist and founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Each element of the flag has special meaning.
Star: represents Texas where the last slaves were informed, they were free and the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states.
The Celebration & Tribute
Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Events are held annually through the U.S., traditionally on or around the 19th of June. Juneteenth is a time for prayer, a time to celebrate the abolishment of slavery, and a time to gather the remaining descendants of slavery to honor and remember our ancestors. Equally important, it serves as a reminder that freedom and racial equality have consistently been a hard-fought battle for African Americans. The celebration reminds us that the battle is still not entirely over as much of yesterday’s struggle continues today, making Juneteenth a federal holiday that should be celebrated by all.
Celebrated in cities across the country, each celebration is unique. Denver, Colorado is home to the Juneteenth Music Festival, a dynamic three-day community event which annually attracts 50,000 people. The event is held at the historic Five Points (coined “The Harlem of the West”) and starts on Saturday with the Juneteenth R&B Summer Kick Off, a headlined live concert series. Then continues the next day with a parade to honor the struggles and social progress achieved through marches and demonstrations organized for freedom, justice, and equality in our country's history. Then closes with a street festival that includes good food, music, entertainment, art, cultural events, and more!
Wherever you are in the United States, be sure to check out and support your local Juneteenth Celebration - and, learn your history.