What Is Juneteenth?

“Juneteenth is a day that at once reminds me of a profound step in the slow march of progress, and the long unrelenting struggle to reach our destination.”  This is a view voiced by Harry Gaggos and echoed by countless Black Americans across the United States. June 19th, 2021, the United States Federal Government recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. However, Juneteenth is by no means a new holiday, as it has been celebrated since 1866. 

Juneteenth was a holiday born of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Although the Civil War ended on May 26, 1865, enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation was not widespread until Union troops made their way to each of the Confederate states. The Proclamation, written by Abraham Lincoln, granted slaves in the Confederate states their freedom.

 On June 19th, 1865, nearly 2,000 soldiers marched into Galveston Bay, Texas, and declared all 250,000 slaves in Texas free. One slave owner, Logan Stroud, was recorded to have wept dejectedly as he read to the 150 enslaved people on his plantation that “...in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free’”. This day became known to many as the United States’ second independence day. One year later, the freed slaves in Galveston organized the first Jubilee Day celebration. The name was changed to Juneteenth in the 1890s. For many years, Juneteenth was marked by prayer, singing songs, and wearing new clothes. Though it started in Texas, it quickly became celebrated by Black communities across the United States. 

However, during the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws became widespread, creating a hostile environment for people of color. Segregation became an ugly reality of everyday life and fewer people observed Juneteenth, as it became a calling card for racism. Black people faced discrimination in everything from their work to their social life. Because of this new reality, many felt that celebrating Juneteenth would be drawing negative attention that was already so rampant. That all changed in the 1960s, which saw a revival of the celebration of Juneteenth. Cities like Fort Worth and Houston, Texas began hosting massive celebrations. In 1978, over 100,000 people attended a Juneteenth event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One year later, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday. 

And the momentum has only been gaining. Juneteenth has become a widely celebrated holiday, and activists were successful in getting it recognized as a Federal holiday. Today, food festivals, rodeos, family reunions, parties, and historical reenactments have all become mainstream celebrations of Juneteenth. It has become an increasingly multicultural holiday, commemorating the day that freedom was finally attained by the enslaved people of the United States. It is a holiday that is built upon the strength of Harriet Tubman, the determination of Rosa Parks, the eloquence of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the sweat and tears of every single enslaved person that ever walked on American soil. 

As a country with a history of oppression and inequality, the recognition of Juneteenth is certainly a step in the right direction. However, this country has not left that oppression and inequality completely in the past. Black people still face systemic racism, workplace discrimination, police brutality, and many other forms of hate. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King once said, this ongoing fight for basic human rights will continue "Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The question now is which side of history our society will choose.

Ayah Edris,

Journalism Intern at CAIR-TX Austin/DFW