BIN Explains: A Brief History Of The Juneteenth Holiday

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Juneteenth has traditionally been recognized as a regional holiday among Black communities in Texas and across the South. However, it has grown to reach communities across the country in recent years. As the holiday touches more and more people each year, it’s important to discuss how the holiday came to be, what it means, and how it continues to evolve.

Pandemonium In Galveston Bay


January 1, 1863, is commonly known as “Freedom’s Eve” because it refers to the night before former President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. While Lincoln wasn’t the ardent abolitionist that many school history books portray him to be, his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freed many slaves across the country and marked a major milestone in the Civil War. Unfortunately, news of the executive order did not travel around the world very quickly.

In the months following his executive order, thousands of Union troops traveled throughout the South to inform communities about the executive order. While Union troops may have made it to the Carolinas fairly quickly, other states in the South, like Florida and Texas, moved on with life as if nothing had happened. In fact, many white Americans moved to Texas with enslaved groups because they perceived the state to be safe haven from Lincoln’s order. Fortunately, that proved not to be true.

Nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, sealed, and delivered to the American people, Union General Gordon Granger finally reached Galveston Bay, Texas, to inform more than 200,000 enslaved people that they were now free.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger told Texas citizens on June 19, 1865.

From that point on, newly freed communities referred to June 19 as Juneteenth, Jubilee Day or Freedman’s Day. Early celebrations involved prayer, barbecues, and rallies where community leaders informed marginalized communities about their rights as American citizens. More than a century after the first celebration was held in Texas, the Lone Star State recognized it as an official holiday.

Road To Making Juneteenth A National Holiday


The road to making Juneteenth a federal holiday has been a long, arduous path. It began in the late 1970s as Texas turned the day into a statewide holiday. Neighboring Oklahoma followed shortly thereafter. Wisconsin and Florida followed in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a spurt in the 2000s as more than two dozen states signed legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday by 2010.

Efforts to transform Juneteenth from a state-by-state celebration into a federal holiday picked up in 2016 as activist Opal Lee began holding marches from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. Working with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Lee led groups of demonstrators to Capitol Hill each year. By doing this, she was able to build connections to lawmakers from the state of Texas and around the country.

In 2020, Lee’s efforts were pushed to the forefront during the fight against state-sanctioned violence. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee helped introduce a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. While it passed through the House floor, it was stalled in the Senate by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Nearly a year later, the bill was reintroduced to the Senate by John Cornyn and Chuck Schumer. Despite silent pushback from a few Republican lawmakers, the bill was pushed to the U.S. House of Representatives where it passed with more than 400 votes of approval. Concluding the work of Lee and thousands of activists, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on June 17, 2021.

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