The U.S. government is catching up with Black people who have been commemorating the end of slavery in the United States for generations with a day called “Juneteenth.”
President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday that was passed by Congress to set aside Juneteenth, or June 19th, as a federal holiday. “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” he said.
The Senate approved the bill unanimously; only 14 House Republicans — many representing states that were part of the slave-holding Confederacy in the 19th century — opposed the measure.
What is this federal holiday, and what is its history? Here’s a look:
The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that the man she referred to as “old master” had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling the people he enslaved what had happened.
“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said at the time. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”
Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. That was more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia.
Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. Its observance has continued around the nation and the world since. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.
WHAT DOES ‘JUNETEENTH’ MEAN?
The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day.
Often celebrated at first with church picnics and speeches, the holiday spread across the nation and internationally as Black Texans moved elsewhere.
The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.
HOW IT BECAME A LAW
Supporters of the holiday have worked to make sure Juneteenth celebrators don’t forget why the day exists.
“In 1776 the country was freed from the British, but the people were not all free,” Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. “June 19, 1865, was actually when the people and the entire country was actually free.”
After taking a backseat during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Juneteenth made a resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s in communities across the country, with Texas becoming the first state to establish it as a holiday in 1980.
In 1994, leaders from around the nation gathered at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans to advocate for even greater acknowledgment of June 19’s significance. That meeting would spawn a number of organizations and causes dedicated to commemorating and honoring Juneteenth, including the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
In 2000, the group’s founder and chairman Rev. Ronald Myers began a campaign to make it a national day of observance and for all 50 states and US territories to recognize it as a state holiday or observance.
Others, like Opal Lee, fought for Juneteenth’s recognition in less traditional ways.
In 2016, then 89-year-old Lee set out on foot from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, with the goal of reaching the nation’s capital. Determined to see Juneteenth become a national holiday, she hoped that “surely somebody would notice a little old lady in tennis shoes.”
The “grandmother of Juneteenth” continued to push for the effort with an annual 2.5-mile walk in her hometown, symbolizing the two-and-a-half years it took for word of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to reach enslaved people in Texas.
Five years later, her efforts paid off.