Why Juneteenth, the U.S.’s Second Independence Day, Is a Federal Holiday

The celebration commemorates June 19, 1865, when a military decree informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free

A Juneteenth celebration held in Brooklyn, New York, on June 18, 2023
A Juneteenth celebration held in Brooklyn, New York, on June 18, 2023 Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill designating Juneteenth—the longstanding commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States—as a federal holiday. Juneteenth quickly gained traction across the country, with 59 percent of American adults reporting that they knew “a lot” or “some” about the holiday in 2022, up from 37 percent in 2021, according to a Gallup poll.

Juneteenth derives its name from June 19, 1865, the day that U.S. General Gordon Granger informed the enslaved individuals of Galveston, Texas, that they were officially free. Issued two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Granger’s decree marked the end of slavery in the rebellious Confederate states.

Limited-Edition Juneteenth Collection Available Now

Celebrated by African Americans for generations through food and fellowship, Juneteenth embodies Black resilience, independence, and community. It is a day African Americans set aside to commemorate the end of slavery and the promise of freedom—expressed through music, food, and ceremony.

“Although there were enslavers who were aware of the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that it was actually enforced [by] the Union Army,” wrote Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in a 2021 blog post. “It took the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to finally end slavery throughout the nation.”

To mark Juneteenth, NMAAHC is hosting a special Community Day on Saturday, June 15. The free, in-person event will feature crafts; a mixology workshop; live jazz performances; and informational sessions on the Buffalo Soldiers, all-Black regiments that served on the Western frontier after the Civil War. Participants must register online ahead of time. To cap the day’s celebration, the museum’s director, Kevin Young, will host a conversation with Bryant Terry, a James Beard Award-winning chef, activist and author. Tickets to the talk, which includes a plant-based meal curated by Terry, cost $40 and must be reserved online.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday

The 2021 bill’s passage made Juneteenth the nation’s 12th federal holiday. The last time the government added a new holiday to its calendar was in 1983, when the third Monday of January was declared Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Emancipation Day celebration
Photograph from Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat from New York, told the Associated Press’ Kevin Freking in 2021. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”

The decision to recognize Juneteenth on a national level arrived just over a year after the police killing of George Floyd sparked global protests against systemic racism. This 2020 reckoning, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic’s disproportionate toll on Black Americans and ongoing debates about the commemoration of the Confederacy, led to an uptick of interest in the holiday.

“Juneteenth has … had a rebirth in terms of people focusing on it, celebrating it, wanting to know what it is and wanting to know what it signifies and how it relates to this long arc of racial divide and progress, or not, in our country,” Brenda Elaine Stevenson, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times’ Isabella Grullón Paz in 2021.

Whether Juneteenth’s designation as a federal holiday has helped bridge this divide is a matter of debate. Writing for the Daily Beast in 2023, Ernest Owens, a journalist who grew up in Houston, described the day as the Black “Fourth of July—a celebration which reminded me that the South still had something to say, and that Black people didn’t have to wait for the validation of our white peers to gather around our history.” In recent years, however, Owens argued that “this sacred holiday has … become mainstreamed into something that now feels whitewashed, co-opted and highly performative.”

Juneteenth: Connecting the Historic to the Now

Columnist Renée Graham echoed this sentiment in a 2023 essay for the Boston Globe, explaining:

While a lot of Black people appreciated the gesture of making Juneteenth a federal holiday, many of us also understood that this was all it was—a performative gesture after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. … Gentrifying commemorations and making them generically about “unity” dilutes what our ancestors endured for nearly 250 years so that we could live and undermines the immense debt this nation owes to the truth before it can attain its elusive unity.

The history of Juneteenth

Juneteenth was initially celebrated mainly in Texas. Though the Emancipation Proclamation applied to the rebellious state, it wasn’t enforced until federal soldiers arrived in the region in June 1865. According to historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., news of Granger’s order spread slowly to Texas’ 250,000 enslaved people. Some plantation owners withheld the news until after the harvest, while others forced the newly emancipated to continue working. Those who defied their enslavers by acting on the decree did so at their own peril and sometimes found themselves the targets of violence.

A Juneteenth celebration held in Richmond, Virginia, around 1905
A Juneteenth celebration held in Richmond, Virginia, around 1905 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As the Texas State Historical Association notes, the first Juneteenth celebrations doubled as political rallies used to educate Black Americans about their voting rights. These events soon blossomed into full-blown festivities featuring barbecues, rodeos, horseback riding and games. In some areas, Black communities whose celebrations were relegated to town and city outskirts raised funds to purchase their own tracts of land; these sites were commonly called Emancipation Parks.

Black Americans migrating westward in the mid-20th century brought Juneteenth celebrations with them, William Wiggins Jr., author of Jubilation: African-American Celebrations in the Southeast, told Smithsonian magazine’s Ashley Luthern in 2009.

“Where you had Black families moving to California from east Texas, and southwest Arkansas and Oklahoma, to work in the shipyards, or to work in the airplane factories, then Juneteenth started cropping up in those states,” Wiggins explained.

In the 2021 NMAAHC blog post, curator Angela Tate pointed out that Juneteenth is far from the only holiday celebrating emancipation. Mississippi marks the end of slavery on May 8, for instance, while Maryland holds its commemoration on November 1. But the once-local holiday gained traction nationwide during the 1950s and 1960s, when civil rights activists celebrated it as “a way to address poverty and freedom and [hark] back to our past,” according to Wiggins.

Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. By 2019, all but four states—Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana—celebrated the day as either a holiday or an observance. South Dakota was the last holdout, with Governor Kristi Noem declaring the day a state holiday in 2022.

Speaking with the New York Times’ Luke Broadwater in 2021, Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a lead sponsor of the bill designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday, pointed out that the legislation arrived at a time of debate over how schools teach students about the nation’s checkered racial past. Since January 2021, 44 states have taken steps to restrict classroom discussions of critical race theory, racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis.

Group of people having a picnic in the 1920s
Early Juneteenth celebrations featured picnics, rodeos, horseback riding and other festivities. Collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture / Gift of Jennifer Cain Bohrnsted

Juneteenth itself has factored into the ongoing controversy: Last year, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of U.S. adults believe the holiday should be included in public school curricula, while 20 percent say it should not.

Recognizing Juneteenth on a federal level “acknowledges slavery as the original sin built into the United States Constitution,” Markey said. “We celebrate its eradication, but we can’t celebrate how deeply racism resulted in America’s policies and is still built into education, health care, housing and every other policy.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Juneteenth Community Day will take place on Saturday, June 15, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Register here, and buy tickets to A Seat at the Table: A Juneteenth Conversation With Bryant Terry and Kevin Young, held that same day at 6:45 p.m., here.

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