Presented by Lamar Law Office, LLC of Atlanta, GA.
The beginning of summer for Americans includes the observance of Memorial Day, an important holiday memorializing the sacrifices of U.S. veterans in service to the nation. While many consider the Fourth of July as the next major U.S. holiday, there is a lesser-known but equally important holiday on June nineteenth each year. “Juneteenth,” as it’s called, is a holiday that dates back to the abolition of slavery following the end of the Civil War. On this day, we recognize a key date that fundamentally changed U.S. history and the present-day fabric of this country.
The Origin Story of Juneteenth
The Juneteenth holiday dates back to June 19, 1865, and it is considered the longest-running holiday for Black Americans in the United States. On this date, federal troops arrived in Galveston, TX, to seize control of the state and ensure that all slaves were freed, symbolically marking the end of slavery in America. While Juneteenth is the official date that marks the end of slavery in the U.S., this historic event had been years in the making.
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation decreed all slaves in the Confederate states to be free. While the proclamation was an imperfect document that did not fundamentally end slavery or address it in the non-rebel states, it created an important and necessary velocity for Americans to move towards abolition. Even as the Civil War raged on, the Proclamation brought the acceptance of Black Americans into the Union Army, which was a major step toward equality and the recognition of Black Americans’ rights and eventual citizenship. Frederick Douglass wrote,
“Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”
As the days of the war wore on, the Union made continuous gains until General Lee’s eventual surrender of the Confederacy to General Grant in April 1865. While the implementation of abolition was slow, it arrived in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas on the first Juneteenth in 1865, signaling the symbolic end of slavery in the United States. However, this was far from the end of the story.
The Significance of Juneteenth
While Juneteenth marked the end of a decades-long struggle against slavery, it stood for far more than this singular event. Rather, Juneteenth took on the role of a “ritualized, political holiday that tells and retells the story of Black people’s ongoing struggle in a nation that’s so invested in forgetting.” This held particular significance in years to come, especially as the Black populace fought continuously for their rights through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era, and into the 20th century.
The holiday remained central to the grassroots traditions of many Black communities in America for its first century. Still, it lacked the momentum of other well-known holidays due to unequal treatment of Black Americans, among other factors.
In 1968, prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Before his death, he had enacted a collectivist movement called the Poor People’s Campaign, intended to address the struggles of poverty suffered by minority groups in the United States. This group would organize a 50,000 person demonstration called Solidarity Day on June 19, 1968, drawing attention back to the origin of Juneteenth and linking it to the economic disenfranchisement of minorities in America. This critical moment reignited the significance of Juneteenth on a national stage.
Juneteenth in the 21st Century
In 1979, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. In the years that followed, other states would slowly move to recognize it, with approximately half of the United States on board by 2008. As of the writing of this article, all states now recognize the holiday except for North Dakota. The holiday is not recognized on the federal level.
That said, Juneteenth is now much more widely acknowledged by non-Black members of the population. In the last few years, the rise of protest in response to racial inequity, police brutality, and other topical issues has given way to a wide-reaching, highly relevant conversation about the importance of this holiday.
As was the case with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, recent events have pointed to Juneteenth as an opportunity to commemorate the long history of racial reckoning in this country. Moreover, many people and organizations are now using it as an opportunity to educate, inform, and emphasize Black history in the United States.
The history of Juneteenth speaks deeply to the history of our nation. While Black Americans have primarily commemorated it since its inception, it reminds us of how far we have come, but also how far we have yet to go. Today, the team at Lamar Law Office recognizes Juneteenth as an opportunity to observe and reflect upon the ongoing struggle of the Black community for justice.