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What is Juneteenth? The history and origin behind the holiday

This year marks the 156th annual Juneteenth celebration, which is observed every June 19.

The history of Juneteenth

June 19, 202002:56
/ Source: TODAY

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 on Thursday, 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.

Here's the significance and history behind the holiday.

When is Juneteenth?

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

Young men from the Like Brothers dance team march in a Juneteenth celebration parade, commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.Joe Amon / Denver Post via 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.

What is Juneteenth?

June 19, 201901:53

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

The history of 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.

Rep. Al Edwards on the House floor on May 3, 2005 in Austin, Texas.Thomas Terry / AP

Today, 48 states along with the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as "a holiday or observance." Only Hawaii and South Dakota do not yet recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance.

That could soon change, since the Senate unanimously passed a bill on June 15 to make the day a federal holiday. The measure next goes to the House and if it passes, Juneteenth will become the 11th federal holiday.

Juneteenth celebrations

Zebiyan Fields, 11, at center, drums alongside more than 20 kids at the front of the Juneteenth parade in Flint, Michigan on June 19, 2018.Jake May / AP

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.

Miss Juneteenth Sean-Maree Swinger-Otey waves to the crowd during the celebration parade in 2015.Joe Amon / Getty Images

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.

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