What Is Juneteenth? And, Why Is It in the News?

What’s Juneteenth, why’s it in the news? We explain this annual American holiday and it’s increased significance

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What is Juneteenth?
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19 June or ‘Juneteenth’ has been celebrated since 1865 by African Americans, that is for over 150 years, as a day to mark the end of slavery. It’s called Juneteenth because it is basically a combination June and Nineteenth and marks the date that last of the confederate states found out about end of slavery in the United States.

But, this year, in the backdrop ‘Black Lives Matter’, this unofficial holiday has gained even more prominence. We break down this significant date in the US history and what it stands to represent as the country fights, once again, for racial equality.

What is the significance of Juneteenth?
What is the significance of Juneteenth?
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)
Juneteenth - An annual American holiday
Juneteenth - An annual American holiday
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

The American Civil War

To understand everything with Juneteenth, we must start with the American Civil War, which went on from 1861 to 1865. It started when 11 southern states seceded from the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.

The major flashpoint, that eventually led to secession and the war, was the sectional difference the two sides had on slavery. While Abraham Lincoln wanted it abolished, the confederate states, whose economy was still largely based on plantations that were dependent on slaves, did not want to end slavery.

The American Civil War 
The American Civil War 
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

So, what happened on 19 June, 1865?

On this day in Galveston, Texas, a Union General read out Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which told the enslaved African Americans that they were free. Texas was the last confederate state to find out about this, two years after Lincoln had signed it.

The order did not end slavery overnight in Texas, like it hadn’t yet in many other states. But African Americans in Galveston started celebrating Juneteenth as the day of freedom from slavery.

What happened on June 19 1865?
What happened on June 19 1865?
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

What’s the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1 1863 which basically declared ‘ all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are, and henceforth shall be free’.

While the proclamation only applied to slaves in confederate states occupied by the United States, it essentially gave an impetus to enslaved African Americans to join the war for the United States, and treating it as a war for their freedom.

By the end of the civil war, over 200,000 African Americans had fought for the United States army and navy.

What’s the emancipation proclamation?
What’s the emancipation proclamation?
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)
What did the emancipation proclamation do?
What did the emancipation proclamation do?
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

The holiday, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilation Day and Cel-liberation day, is usually marked by reading out the emancipation proclamation, parades, cookouts and family get togethers.

While American Presidents have always acknowledged the day, it still has not been declared a National holiday in the country. 46 out of the 50 American states, however, officially observe Juneteenth as a holiday. Texas was the first state to officially declare Juneteenth a holiday in 1980.

How is Juneteenth celebrated?
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

Why is Juneteenth more significant this year?

In the wake of the BLM protests, the scale at which Juneteenth will be observed, is likely to be significantly larger. There is a renewed call to make Juneteenth a National holiday and many private American companies have declared Juneteenth as a paid holiday for their employees.

US President, Donald Trump also came under fire for planning to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on 19 June. The reason? Tulsa witnessed one of the worst cases of racial violence in 1921, when a mob of white people attacked an African American neighbourhood, killing 300 people.

This year, many celebrations were initially cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But since protests broke out against police brutality in response to the killing of George Floyd, many demonstrations against institutional racism and police brutality have been planned in lieu of the usual celebrations on Juneteenth.

The significance of Juneteenth this year
The significance of Juneteenth this year
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)
American companies observing Juneteenth
American companies observing Juneteenth
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

Companies that have declared Juneteenth a holiday for their employees include Adobe, Buzzfeed, Twitter, Nike, NFL, Mastercard, Spotify, The New York Time, Vox Media and Target.

American companies observing Juneteenth
American companies observing Juneteenth
(Graphic: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

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