The History of Juneteenth

Published on: Jun 17, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Demonstrators march through Brooklyn Bridge on June 19, 2020. Getty Images

Juneteenth – also known as Freedom Day – is upon us.

Yes it is.

It commemorates the day when slavery officially ended in the US: June 19, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But it took two and half years for that news to reach all of the Confederate states. Weeks after Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered in 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX and relayed the news: that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States,” all of Texas’s approximately 250,000 enslaved people were now free.

And was it immediate?

Unfortunately, no. Some plantation owners waited until after the year's harvest to comply. But the date took on a profound meaning for Black communities. In the 1870s, a group of Black residents in Houston raised the money to buy 10 acres of land and create Emancipation Park – a place to formally celebrate Juneteenth. After the Civil War ended in 1865, many Black families migrated across the states and took Juneteenth celebrations with them. But during the Jim Crow era between the late 1800s and the 1960s, many Black Americans were barred from accessing public spaces, and Juneteenth celebrations were often confined to the Black community.

Is it considered a holiday?

In most places. In 1980, Texas became the first state to officially make Juneteenth a state holiday. And currently, all but two states recognize it. (Looking at you Hawaii and South Dakota.) The holiday is considered a time to reflect and celebrate liberation – marked with things like parades, music, and food. Last year, corporate America started getting on board in light of the nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd's death and the fight against systemic racism. Companies like Nike, Mastercard, Twitter, and the NFL have given employees the day off. And activists have pushed the government to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

How’s that working out?

In June, Congress passed and President Biden signed legislation to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The bill gives millions of federal workers a day off – and is the first federal holiday the US adds to its calendar since Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. The move marks a rare moment of overwhelming bipartisan consensus on the Hill.

If you’re looking for ways to celebrate Juneteenth this year, Essence compiled a list of events happening around the country. Another way to celebrate is to support Black-owned businesses (we’ve got some ideas here and here) – today and every day. Finally, you can also educate yourself on systemic racism in the US, and how you can be an ally in the fight against racism.


The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, George Floyd, Ma'Khia Bryant, Rayshard Brooks, and many others have ignited a reckoning around racial injustice in America. And over the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the US to demand justice and change. For many, it starts with acknowledging our country's past, as well as federal recognition of this important part of American history that is too often left out of the conversation.

Last updated on June 17 – Updated to reflect that President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday into law.

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich, Clem Robineau, Niven McCall-Mazza, Kamini Ramdeen, and Julie Shain

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