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Juneteenth is an Official Federal Holiday

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

by Tyler Williams

(Source: ABC 7 Chicago)

Happy Juneteenth Milkmates!

Juneteenth commemorates the 156th anniversary of the freedom of 250,000 Black Americans from the shackles of American chattel slavery after the Civil War on June 19th 1865. This is the Black American version of Independence Day since Black Americans were not free on July 4th, 1776. The significance of Juneteenth is to celebrate the people who took the shackles off of enslaved Africans, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually.

Recently, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on June 17th, 2021, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It was one of those bills that were swift in both chambers of Congress (Senate and the House of Representatives), according to CNN. “I have to say to you, I've only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president," President Biden said at the White House during a signing ceremony.

CNN further reports that Juneteenth is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and became at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday, this year. NPR reported guests at the event included members of the Congressional Black Caucus and 94-year-old Opal Lee, a decades-long activist who fought for Juneteenth to be recognized nationally.

President Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Source: Evan Vucci/AP)

On July 4th, 1776, Independence Day was everyone in the U.S., expect for Native Americans, Blacks, women (of any race), and anyone else who was not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual males. However, on June 19th, 1865, the dynamic of American society was starting to change. Frederick Douglass himself, even pointed out that Independence Day to enslaved Africans carried no meaning at all.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” - Frederick Douglass, (Abolitionist, Orator, Activist, Author)

(Source: Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain)

According to the History Channel, Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people were freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the Union won the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, the news was not only delayed for two and a half years, it was not an immediate change. There are a variety of reasons why the announcement was prolonged. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner details in her comprehensive essay, "Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,' in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas, PBS says.

Mental Floss addressed other theories, including the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. Frankly, the real reason is probably Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war. Furthermore, Mental Floss shows one of the twelve facts that is unknown about Juneteenth is that the General Order was actually urging the newly freed people to stay with their former enslavers in order to survive and get paid to buy their basic necessities. However, the working conditions, shelter, and the pay was so poor that this led to a “scatter” to find better socioeconomic opportunities, preferably in the North.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, 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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

(Source: Internet Archive Book Images, Flckr)

The scatter led to the emergence of a government agency charged with establishing a social structure for the former slaves, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau, for short), began to set up jobs, schools, and even—as early as 1867, according to Texas Monthly.

(Source: Billy McCrae grew up in slavery in Texas. Photo: Ruby T. Lomax. Prints and Photographs Division.)

As time passed by, former enslaved people were being interviewed about their traumatic experiences during slavery. There are multiple accounts of former slaves that have recorded their experiences in the Library of Congress. One example is Billy McCrae, he rises through the low-quality 1940s recording when he candidly talks about his experiences through slavery and what happened when the enslaved people were free. “Right at the creek there, they take them (runaways) and put them on…a log, lay them down and fasten them and whup them,” McCrae tells interviewer Ruby Lomax.

“You hear them (runaways) hollering and praying on them logs….Now I see all of that when I was a boy.”

Juneteenth honors the day African Americans were freed from slavery. (Source: Tippman98x/Shutterstock)

To this day, Juneteenth is still being celebrated to not only remind us about the atrocious acts during slavery. It is to acknowledge the sacrifices that African Americans had to undergo and still achieving equity in the U.S. and the world. According to the Congressional Research Service, some communities purchased land for Juneteenth celebrations, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, TX. As families emigrated from Texas to other parts of the United States, they carried the Juneteenth celebrations with them. Britannica writes that Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, and a number of other states subsequently followed suit. This day is also celebrated outside the United States, with organizations in a number of countries using Juneteenth to recognize the end of slavery and to celebrate the culture and achievements of Black Americans.

A Juneteenth parade in Philadelphia, 2019. (Source: © Tippman98x/

In fact, there are lots of celebratory events dedicated to Juneteenth around the United States. One of those locations is the 2021 Juneteenth New York Festival. According to the site, the Juneteenth NY Festival has become a community staple over the last 12 years. The first Juneteenth NY Festival held in East New York, Brooklyn was hosted by the organization, George Walker Jr. and featured Umoja Events as the community planner in 2009. This festival has the following events: community and talent show performers, exhibitors, health and wellness screenings, parades, relaxation kids spa, and an education and interactive marketplace. For questions or comments about JuneteenthNY, call 646-522-9869 or fill out their contact form.

"This day doesn't just celebrate the past. It calls for action today. I wish all Americans a happy Juneteenth." -President Biden

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