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What is Juneteenth? The history and meaning behind the holiday

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, was recognized as a federal holiday in 2021.

Juneteenth takes place annually on June 19 and marks the true end of slavery in the United States. The holiday is officially recognized in 48 states and last year, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making the day a federal holiday.

The holiday observes the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed of their freedom upon the arrival of federal troops on June 19, 1865 — two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and about two months after the end of the Civil War.

Today, Americans celebrate this important day in history by attending local parades, serving Juneteenth-inspired recipes and reflecting on the true meaning of freedom.

Keep reading to find out the significance and history behind the holiday.

When is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is an annual celebration that commemorates a specific date — June 19, 1865, the day many enslaved people in Texas learned they had been freed.

Since Juneteenth falls on a Sunday this year, the federal holiday will be observed on Monday, June 20. As a result, government buildings will be closed and many Americans will have the day off from work. When Juneteenth falls on a Saturday, the preceding Friday will be an observed legal holiday.

A flag in recognition of Juneteenth is displayed as the Major League Baseball season is postponed due the coronavirus pandemic on June 18, 2020 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Juneteenth flag, created by activist Ben Haith, is a symbolic representation of the end of slavery in the United States.Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images

What is Juneteenth?

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, announcing that those who were slaved “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” but the proclamation didn’t immediately apply in certain areas, including secessionist states like Texas, which had left the Union and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It took another two years for the news to go into effect in Texas. The Civil War ended in April 1865 and two months later, on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, with Granger saying, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Slavery was formally abolished after Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nearly six months later, on Dec. 6, 1865. Freed slaves marked June 19 the following year, kicking off the first celebration of Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is also known as Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Juneteenth Independence Day or Juneteenth National Freedom Day.

Why is it called Juneteenth?

Juneteenth gets it name from combining "June" and "nineteenth," the day that Granger told enslaved people in Texas that they were finally free.

President Biden Signs Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Into Law
Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17, 2021.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The history and meaning behind Juneteenth

Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. The late Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, a Democratic congressman, wrote and sponsored a bill calling for “Emancipation Day in Texas” to be recognized as a “legal holiday.” He filed Bill 1016 in February 1979 and it passed in the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate the following May. Texas Republican Gov. William Clements signed the bill in June 1979 and the bill officially went into effect on Jan. 1, 1980.

Just days before Juneteenth in 2021, Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as the 11th federal holiday, making it the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created.

"Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a brighter morning to come. This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power. A day in which we remember the moral stain, terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take," Biden said during the signing ceremony.

Today, all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, recognize Juneteenth as “a holiday or observance.” In February 2022, South Dakota was the last state to recognize Juneteenth as a legal holiday following in Hawaii and North Dakota's footsteps.

Anaja Campbell (far right) and the Denver Dancing Diamonds preform at 27th in Historic Five Points during the Juneteenth Celebration parade that started at Manual High School commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. June 20, 2015 Denver, CO (
Juneteenth celebrations and parades take the streets.Joe Amon / Denver Post via Getty Images

How to celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth has grown from a national holiday into a global one with a variety of celebrations worldwide, including cookouts, festivals, marches, pageants, parades, picnics, rodeos, readings and vigils. Events commemorate African American culture, achievements and food, while honoring a monumental change in American history.

Many universities and private companies have joined state governments in recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday. The NFL declared Juneteenth a league holiday in 2020, following in the footsteps of companies like Nike and Twitter.