Black History Month: What Juneteenth represents for Black Americans

(Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post). Getty Images

For Black Americans, June 19 or “Juneteenth” marks an important official holiday in almost all 50 states — it’s what many call a “second independence day.”

Juneteenth celebrates the abolition of slavery in the United States and the sacrifices made by Black people to achieve freedom at the end of the Civil War, according to historians. 

“Juneteenth is one of those legendary holidays that has taken on its own life,” said Frank Smith, the founding director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C.

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“For African-Americans, who have too few holidays to celebrate here in the United States of our own, we’re happy to have it on that list.”

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But not everyone knows how Juneteenth came to be recognized and why, explained Smith. 

Here’s how Juneteenth came to be.

What is the history behind Juneteenth? 

Juneteenth recognizes the day in June 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free, three months after the Civil War ended. The war, which lasted from 1861-65, was fought between northern and southern states, as the south believed slavery should remain legal and wanted to separate from the U.S. because the north didn’t agree. 

When the north won and slaves were set free, it took time for word to get to those in Texas, explained Smith.

It wasn’t until a general travelled to Galveston that thousands of enslaved people learned on June 19 that they had been emancipated. That’s why Juneteenth is considered the beginning of freedom for Black people in America.

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Despite the victory, it took until later that year for slavery to end legally on Dec. 6, 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

How Juneteenth is celebrated in the United States

Juneteenth remains the most popular emancipation holiday in the U.S., representing a delayed victory for Black Americans, journalist Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic. The holiday is a reminder that Black people have fought — and continue to fight — for rights they are entitled to, he said.

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Newkirk explains this holiday is more important than ever as Black people continue to fight oppression every day, particularly with respect to police brutality.

Click to play video: 'Exhibits at CMHR celebrate Black History Month'
Exhibits at CMHR celebrate Black History Month

“Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America, and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks,” he wrote.

Due to its historical roots, Texas was the first state to mark Juneteenth as an official holiday in 1980. As of 2019, every state except for Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana recognizes the day.

In many states, Juneteenth is celebrated with large parades, drumlines, concerts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, according to NBC News.

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Officially honouring the day and using it as a jumping-off point for discussion with current generations about the history and achievements of Black people in the U.S., which are too often overlooked, is important, said Smith.

“This is how we use these stories to motivate young people to say, look, these people did it …we all have to fight in our time,” he said.

“It does amount to something.”

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