Juneteenth: Understanding its history and importance

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Juneteenth Independence Day. Freedom or Emancipation day. Annual american holiday, celebrated in June 19. African-American history and heritage. Getty Images

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Juneteenth, which is known to many African Americans around the country as a day of freedom, joy, and jubilee –has been catapulted into the national spotlight causing many other American citizens to ask, ‘What is Juneteenth?’

The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and 19th. The day is also known Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, according to Juneteenth.com.

In any other year, Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating June 19, 1965, the day that ALL enslaved black people learned that they were free, has been marked by African American families across the nation with a barbecue, a cookout, a parade, or a community festival or gather where the soulful rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the black National Anthem would fill the area in song. But today, Juneteenth has elevated to even more — especially with support growing for the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement.

FILE – In this June 6, 2020, file photo, demonstrators protest at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the group behind the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, has established a more than $12 million fund to aid organizations fighting institutional racism in the wake of the George Floyd protests. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

During a time when people are fighting for racial justice and equality, Juneteenth, in addition to being a day of jubilee and celebration — has become a day of continued protests and rallies as Americans confront systemic racism that has disproportionately affected the black community.

Photo from Getty Images. Vector EPS10 illustration

So what exactly is Juneteenth? Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know about Juneteenth.

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South on Jan. 1, 1863, it wasn’t enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War two years later. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved black people in certain parts of the south, until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of their freedom from bondage to Galveston, Texas.

Why?

Well, there have been numerous attempts to explain why there was a two and a half year delay for black people who were enslaved to receive the important news.

Juneteenth, Freedom Day. June 19. Holiday concept. Photo from Getty Images. Vector EPS10 illustration

According to Juneteenth.com, below is a list of several versions of what happened that have been handed down through the years.

  • The messenger was killed: Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom.
  • Shhh… Let’s keep it a secret: It was also suggested that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations.
  • Let’s reap a harvest: Another story is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

According to Juneteenth.com, none of the numerous versions of why there was a 2-year delay in telling slaves they were free that was handed down from generation to generation, could be validated. Whatever the reason, one thing that is for sure is that when slaves should have been set free, conditions in Texas remained status quo.

But then on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, Major General Gordon Granger delivered ‘General Order No. 3,’ which said:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

Stories passed down say the enslaved black people started celebrating with joy, even crying and praying right there about the news. The next year, former slaves started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston, and it eventually reached other states.

Photo from Getty Images. vector eps10

According to the Associated Press, early Juneteenth celebrations were mostly cookouts or barbecues, said Robert Widell Jr., a professor of African American history at the University of Rhode Island and author of “Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle.” They were typically large, joyous gatherings as former enslaved people prioritized trying to reunite with family.

Juneteenth celebrations eventually stretched beyond Texas, which was the first state to make it a holiday in 1980, as black people continued the tradition after moving out of state or overseas, the AP said. Most states, including our great state of Nevada, and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of recognition, like Flag Day.

Gov. Sisolak proclaims June 19 as ‘Juneteenth Day in Nevada;’ flags to be lowered at half staff to honor lives lost to slavery

Countries like South Korea, Ghana, Israel, Taiwan, France, and the U.S. territory of Guam also have held Juneteenth celebrations.

According to the Associated Press, some states, cities and companies now want to go beyond simply acknowledging the day. In Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy, Gov. Ralph Northam moved to make Juneteenth an official holiday, giving executive branch employees a paid day off Friday and proposing legislation to make it a permanent state holiday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo similarly designated Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees and vowed to push legislation next year making it a permanent holiday. Philadelphia also made Juneteenth a holiday, while Portland, Oregon, and Chicago are considering similar action.

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