Family gatherings, traditional food, music, and readings… all mark the date of June 19th – or Juneteenth – across America. Seen by many as the country’s second Independence Day, Juneteenth was made a federal holiday in 2021, and while it may be the newest addition to the US calendar, the celebration dates back almost two centuries. Here, we explore its origins, how it’s celebrated, and why it’s important to remember today.
On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people across the Confederate States in America. But over in Texas – the western-most of the Confederate States – very little changed. In fact, these new laws weren’t enforced there for another two years, until Union troops were strong enough to overcome resistance and declare freedom for all – on June 19th, 1865.
This proclamation of freedom was read aloud to Texans in Galveston. In the years to come, many former enslaved individuals and their families made pilgrimages to the city on June 19th, remembering, celebrating, and keeping alive the events of that momentous day.
For a long time, Juneteenth was rarely observed outside the African-American community. Not everyone travelled to Galveston for the occasion, and different neighbourhoods marked the date in different ways, which is still the case today.
Central to many celebrations though, is the gathering of friends and family, barbeques and traditional food, music, and dancing. As the holiday has become more widely appreciated, some cities now hold parades and festivals, harnessing the opportunity to work with local Black businesses and talent. There’s also an underlying theme of education – of sharing African-American culture and history, while celebrating achievements within the community.
So, why has Juneteenth endured and why is it still so important today?
June 19th was declared a state holiday in Texas back in 1980, but activists across the country continued to advocate for a nationally recognised holiday. Notably in 2016, Opal Lee, aged 89, walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth in Texas all the way to Washington D.C. to raise awareness for the campaign, gathering over 1.6 million signatures for her petition along the way.
The movement gained further momentum during the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality in 2020, which served as a stark reminder that while freedom had been won in the letter of the law, in the spirit of the law there is still much work to be done.
The creation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is in itself a triumph though, as it places the Black experience in the USA front and centre. It’s a dedicated day to remember what the efforts of advocates can achieve, and to openly discuss America’s involvement in slavery and its implications on the present day. Most of all, it’s an opportunity to come together and celebrate that most basic of human rights – the right to be free.
We hope to highlight the very same thing in a Museum of Slavery and Freedom in Deptford, London – telling the UK’s side of the story, so entwined with that told across the Atlantic. More than just a space to reflect on the traumas of the past, a museum here would honour the campaign for abolition, celebrate the achievements of the Black community, and continue the fight for freedom from oppression through collective education.
To learn more about our campaign to build a Museum of Slavery and Freedom in Deptford, keep an eye on our ‘What’s On’ page, discover four ways to be involved, and sign up to our quarterly emails here.