What Is Juneteenth? (And How You Can Celebrate It This Year)
In the coming months, Americans will celebrate many beloved holidays, from Father's Day to the Fourth of July to Labor Day.
But there's one holiday you may know little about — even though, for many, it is the most important of the year.
Read on to learn about the history, present and future of Juneteenth, the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth Honors a Significant Moment in History
Many people think of Emancipation Day (the end of American slavery) as Jan. 1, 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring "all persons held as slaves ... shall be then, thenceforward and forever free."
But it wasn't until June 19, 1865 — 2.5 years later — that news of the proclamation finally reached the quarter-million slaves living in Texas. That's when Union General Gordon Granger (pictured) arrived in Galveston to make the announcement, reading, "The people of Texas are informed ... all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves...”
The name "Juneteenth" marks this historic day literally, as a combination of "June" and "19th."
In Texas, a Long Delay Keeps Slavery Alive
Why was there such a long delay to abolish slavery in Texas?
Many white landowners in Texas, as elsewhere, resisted granting enslaved Africans their freedom, and because there weren't many Union troops in the state to enforce the new order, they were able to keep Black people enslaved for long after they were officially declared free. (It's also worth noting that the proclamation only applied to enslaved people in the confederacy and not to Union-loyal states like Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Mississippi.)
Even after Granger arrived, some Texas slaves remained in bondage for several more years.
Other Stories Emerge to Explain the Delay
Many folkloric stories have been shared over the years to explain the delay in Texas. As one story goes, it took more than two years for a messenger traveling by mule to make his way from Washington to Texas. In another tale, this messenger was murdered on his way to delivering the news.
Another theory posits that landowners wanted to wait to share the news until they could benefit from one more cotton harvest.
In any case, once news spread that Texas slaves had their emancipation, Juneteenth was established to commemorate the occasion. But due to shifting social forces, its celebration would face challenges in the years to come.
Juneteenth Celebrations in the Early Years
By the late 1800s, large crowds of African Americans were celebrating Juneteenth. During these early celebrations, prayer and spirituals were common, as were readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing and games. Some would take time to search for lost family members, and to represent their freedom, participants would often come dressed in new clothes. Shown here is a Juneteenth celebration in Texas in 1900.
After the turn of the 20th century, however, as Black students moved into American classrooms, education about Juneteenth, and slavery in general, was suppressed. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s helped renew interest, but only to an extent, as Black people fighting for equal rights focused on changes in policy.
A 1968 Poor Peoples March in Washington, D.C., led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, is seen as a turning point. After this event, many attendees returned home to initiative Juneteenth celebrations — laying the groundwork for the holiday to regain prominence in the coming years.
Texas Takes a Significant Step
One of the most seminal moments for Juneteenth came on Jan. 1, 1980, when — more than a century after slaves were informed of their emancipation there — Texas became the first state to declare it an official state holiday.
Al Edwards, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, is credited with making the passage of the bill a reality. He went on to champion the holiday in states across the country, earning him the nickname "The Father of Juneteenth."
After serving 13 terms in the House, Edwards retired from public office in 2011, and he passed away at age 83 in April 2020.
Efforts Continue to Honor the Holiday
Many states followed suit, making Juneteenth either a state or ceremonial holiday, but it wasn't until President Joe Biden officially signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021, that it became a legal public holiday throughout the U.S.
How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today: Food and Drink
Historically and today, Juneteenth is marked with picnics, prayer services, family gatherings, parades, rodeos and more.
Traditional foods served at Juneteenth celebrations include barbecue brisket and ribs, collard greens, sweet potatoes and sweet cakes. Strawberry and watermelon soda are also staples of the festivities.
Shown here is the Charleston, South Carolina, Juneteenth Fish Fry in 2010.
How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today: Music and Dance
Dance and music make up a large part of Juneteenth festivities as well, providing a showcase for traditional and modern African American styles.
In this photo, T.J. and the Bandan Koro African Dance Ensemble lead children in a dance at Dallas' Fair Park during a 2017 Juneteenth event.
How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today: Fashion and Clothing
Still today, clothing also remains an integral part of Juneteenth for historically significant reasons: The enslaved were not allowed to choose their own clothing. As writer Bridget Todd put it in InStyle, "Juneteenth itself is a way to reclaim and express social and political freedom, and the clothing people wear continues to be a part of that."
Red, white and blue as well as red, black and green — the colors of the Pan-African flag — are commonly worn by Black Americans honoring the day.
As shown in this photo, African clothing and accessories are also sometimes displayed and sold during celebrations.
How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today: Honoring Ancestors
Crucially, honoring ancestors is a major part of Juneteenth as well, with ceremonies and traditions designed to honor those Black men and women who came before, while remembering the devastating history of slavery in America.
Here, an 8-year-old girl holds flowers and corn as an offering to ancestors during a Juneteenth sunrise ceremony. Later, the offerings would be placed on a small raft and pushed out to sea.
How Juneteenth Is Celebrated Today: Historic Reenactments
To reflect on the history of slavery, Juneteenth participants may also participate in historic re-enactments.
In this photo, attendees at a Juneteenth celebration re-enact the moment Booker T. Washington and his family were emancipated.
What's Next for Juneteenth
It's important to remember that, as Black Americans and communities celebrate Juneteenth, there is still much to be done to ensure justice and equality for all.
As David Hudson, former associate director of content for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House, wrote: "While this Juneteenth serves as a time to celebrate a symbolic milestone in the struggle for equal rights, it also serves as a reminder of the work that remains to guarantee liberty and equality for all Americans."
Here's how to learn more about Juneteenth and slavery in America: