Juneteenth is an annual holiday observing the end of slavery in the U.S. and marks the day (June 19, 1865) when news of emancipation reached people in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy in Galveston, Texas.
In 2021, it became the first new federal holiday created by Congress in nearly four decades. The bipartisan legislation was signed into law by President Biden on June 17, giving Juneteenth the same status as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and other federal holidays.
Celebrated for decades through family gatherings and events such as parades and public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, the holiday received more national attention in recent years—in particular after the global protests sparked in 2020 by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, as well as a national conversation to rethink policing in America. Amid calls for racial equity, more companies, including Nike Inc., Twitter Inc. and Spotify Technology SA, moved to observe the holiday.
The meaning of Juneteenth
The holiday, also known as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day or Jubilee Day, recognizes the date when news of emancipation finally reached Galveston, on June 19, 1865.
Nearly two months after the end of the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, along with more than 1,800 federal troops, arrived to take control of the state, confirming the freedom of the last remaining slaves in the deepest parts of the South.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation—an executive order declaring that “all persons held as slaves” would be free—was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in Appomattox, Va., marked the end of the Civil War in April 1865, news spread slowly and often met resistance from plantation owners.
The 13th Amendment, enshrining a ban on slavery into the Constitution, was ratified in December 1865. In pockets of the country, however, enslavement of African-Americans continued for several years.
When did Juneteenth become a federal holiday?
President Biden signed bipartisan legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday on June 17, 2021. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and was approved 415-14 in the House.
Congressional leaders from both parties said establishing the holiday was an important gesture in recognizing those who suffered under American slavery and as an act of racial reconciliation.
“As it takes on a more national and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all our roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D, Texas), who sponsored the bill.
Juneteenth is the first federal holiday to be created by Congress since 1983, when lawmakers designated the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in honor of the slain civil-rights leader.
Texas was the first state, in 1980, to declare Juneteenth a holiday. Nearly all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, now acknowledge or observe Juneteenth. Illinois and North Dakota made the date an official state holiday in 2021, while Hawaii lawmakers passed a bill to observe Juneteenth. South Dakota remains the only state without an official observance of Juneteenth, according to Congressional Research Service.
When did the new federal holiday take effect?
The new federal holiday took effect immediately. Because the first observance fell on Saturday, most federal employees were given off Friday, June 18.
Many states scrambled to give some of their public employees the day off, and employers from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp. to Stanley Black & Decker Inc. were among the organizations around the U.S. that quickly rolled out new holiday policies for workers. Some allowed people to take Friday off with mere hours of notice. Some universities, like Ohio State, announced the cancellation of classes.
Stock markets, which close for many federal holidays, remained open Friday. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will decide in coordination with the financial industry on whether to close for Juneteenth in 2022, representatives of the exchanges said.
The U.S. Postal Service also continued its operations. “We are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and our customers are relying on us to deliver our essential services,” said Deputy Postmaster General and Chief Human Resources Officer Douglas Tulino. “Closing down our operations without providing appropriate time would lead to operational disruptions.” Mr. Tulino said recognition of the holiday will take place after discussions with unions, management and others.
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
Hundreds of official events take place across the U.S. and the world in celebration of Juneteenth. When the announcement of freedom finally reached Galveston in 1865, newly liberated African-Americans celebrated by prayer, dance and community feasts. The earliest observances of the holiday presented an occasion to bring together family members and recognize Black freedom by reading passages from the Emancipation Proclamation and holding religious services.
After the Covid-19 pandemic limited festivities in 2020, major Juneteenth celebrations, parades and festivals were set for 2021. The Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant, a longstanding tradition in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that awards contestants with educational scholarships, was one of the first to take place in early June.
Atlanta has planned a three-day Juneteenth Atlanta Parade & Music Festival at the city’s Centennial Olympic Park. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum of African American Culture and History has planned two days of presentations, stories and photography exhibitions highlighting issues and the cause for celebrations around the holiday.
In Galveston, celebrations will include the dedication of a new mural commemorating Juneteenth. Created by artist Reginald Adams and his team, the 5,000-square-foot “Absolute Equality” mural is a timeline that shows, among other things, enslaved Africans being brought to the U.S., Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in hand, and Maj. Gen. Granger issuing General Order No. 3, informing Texans that enslaved people were free.