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What is Juneteenth? Learn the history behind the federal holiday's origin and name

Henry Louis Gates Jr. on meaning of Juneteenth
Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the significance and history of Juneteenth 06:30

What is Juneteenth?

The holiday, observed on June 19, is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, and has been celebrated by communities across the country for more than a century. 

But Juneteenth didn't become federally-recognized until 2021, when President Biden signed legislation adding it to the government holiday calendar after both its name and significance rose to the forefront of national conversations the previous year with the resurgence and momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The U.S. federal government now recognizes 12 holidays, including Juneteenth, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. When Mr. Biden approved the law two years ago, he noted during a White House ceremony that a national holiday had not been established since one was declared in 1983 to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history," Mr. Biden said at the ceremony. 

The law immediately went into effect with his signature, and the first Juneteenth, as a national holiday, was observed the following day. That was June 18, 2021.

Since June 19 fell on a Saturday, government offices, alongside a number of private businesses, closed their doors in acknowledgement. Although the financial sector at the time continued to operate as originally planned, NASDAQ confirmed last month that the stock market will be closed Monday for Juneteenth, as was last year, and as it is during other national holidays.

Meet Opal Lee, the "grandmother of Juneteenth" 03:09

Mr. Biden signed the legislation after it passed quickly through both chambers of Congress earlier in the week. Answering public calls for federal recognition that grew throughout 2020 and into 2021, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to establish Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal, public holiday, despite some initial pushback from Republican lawmakers. 

The bill passed the House soon after, in a 415-14 vote, with all of the opposition coming from Republicans. 

Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, the first Republican to announce he would cast his vote against the bill, said he viewed it as an attempt to celebrate identity politics. 

Other arguments against its passage from the GOP suggested that declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday would sow division because American Independence Day is already held annually, on July 4, to commemorate the country gaining independence after the Revolutionary War. Black soldiers fought in the U.S. Army throughout it, but slavery remained legal in all 13 colonies except Vermont, when the inaugural Independence Day happened a year later on July 4, 1777.

Where did Juneteenth get its name?

The origins of Juneteenth date back to June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, a U.S. Army officer and Union General during the Civil War, issued an order in Galveston, Texas, announcing that all slaves were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. About 250,000 Black people enslaved in Texas were the last in the country to receive notice of the proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had issued more than two years prior granting freedom to all enslaved people in Confederate states. 

Despite the proclamation that "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," it could not be implemented in areas under Confederate control before the end of the Civil War in April 1865, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., writes, noting that slavery still would not be abolished nationwide until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of that year.

Because news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached enslaved people in different parts of the U.S. at different times, states in the past have observed it on various dates. In Florida, advocates in 2021 encouraged the state to recognize Emancipation Day on May 20, when enslaved people there were notified of the order. In Washington, D.C., Emancipation Day has historically been recognized city-wide on April 16, the day in 1862 when President Lincoln signed a law to abolish slavery in the nation's capitol.

Why is Juneteenth important?

Before Juneteenth became an official federal holiday, it was already observed as a state or ceremonial holiday in 48 U.S. states as well as D.C. For decades, Juneteenth was declared a state holiday only in Texas, but then Maine, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia all passed laws in recent years to formally recognize the date, too.

Although communities have celebrated Juneteenth for more than 150 years, calls grew to establish it as a federal holiday during the summer of 2020, as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others became high-profile examples of a disproportionate number of deaths of Black Americans at the hands of White police officers. 

Alongside the activism and unrest that came with America's reckoning over racism and police brutality was a renewed push to honor Juneteenth, which many regard as a day meant to celebrate independence while also remembering the country's long history of slavery.

Juneteenth Parade in San Francisco
Event participants are seen during Juneteenth celebration and parade in San Francisco, California, United States on June 10, 2023. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"On behalf of all who have waited for this, I thank them," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee after the House voted to pass the legislation two years ago. "There is more to come in changing lives for justice, equality and freedom. That is what happened today." 

Jackson Lee and Sen. Ed Markey had each introduced bills to declare Juneteenth a national holiday in the wake of Floyd's death the summer before, but neither bill received a floor vote at that time. When both lawmakers reintroduced their proposed legislation early the next year, they were met with broad bipartisan support.

Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University who celebrated Juneteenth with her family while growing up in a town outside of Houston, told CBS News once the bill was sent to Mr. Biden's desk that "creating community and connection" was a cornerstone of the holiday and what observing it meant for her.

"It helped shape who I am today. Juneteenth was the only time of year that our little neighborhood, Thompson Chapel in Sugar Land, became the place to be," Mitchell said in an email. "It felt good to see all kinds of Black people in one place. Juneteenth became a time when I wasn't made to feel like we were a minority."

Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the significance and history of Juneteenth 06:30

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a renowned Harvard professor, echoed that sentiment while speaking to CBS News about Juneteenth one year later, on its first anniversary as a national holiday.

"Juneteenth was not embraced as a national Black holiday for a long, long time," Gates said. "But it was kept alive by Black people in Texas. And that's what's so sweet about it. Our people have been hungry for holidays. Hungry for traditions. Hungry for stories about Black history."

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