What is Juneteenth and Why is it Important?

TL;DR (3-minute read)

  • This past Saturday was Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865. 
  • Last week, Congress passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday; President Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021.
  • Typically, Juneteenth celebrates African-American culture through writings, songs, and documents.
  • For many, Juneteenth represents the recognition of freedom and justice for African-Americans, who have often been denied these rights in the past. 

This past Saturday was June 19, historically known as “Juneteenth.” The annual U.S. holiday commemorates the end to slavery on June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Though President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (a document which emancipated, or freed, all enslaved people in states rebelling against the Union) two years prior to the federal troops’ arrival in Galveston, enslaved people in the south were not instantly freed. Because Texas experienced little presence of Union troops or large-scale rebellion, it continued with institutional slavery following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Hence, Juneteenth marks the true emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

The Emancipation Proclamation (Los Angeles Times)

Road to A National Holiday

Starting in 1866, June 19 became an annual celebration in Galveston. Participants of the Great Migration (a twentieth-century movement during which millions of African Americans migrated to northern cities from Southern states) carried this celebration throughout the country. Over a century later, in 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Several other states followed suit over the years. This past month, however, Congress voted on a resolution to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. The Senate passed the bill unanimously last Tuesday, and the House of Representatives voted 415-14 last Wednesday to send the bill to President Biden; President Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021. “This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Biden said. Juneteenth thus is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was adopted in 1983. While Juneteenth is now an official federal paid holiday, it will take time to transition it into a paid holiday for state workers. It took Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for example, 17 years before it was officially recognized in all 50 states.


People celebrate Juneteenth in a myriad of ways: frequently, there will be public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing of traditional songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and reading of writings by African-American authors. Other celebration traditions include cookouts, rodeos, street fairs, and historical reenactments. 

(New York Amsterdam News)


For many, Juneteenth represents the recognition of freedom and justice for African-Americans, who have often been denied these rights in the past. The decades shadowing the end of the Civil War saw a wave of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws. Additionally, many African-Americans disproportionately faced mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, and a lack of economic investment. More recently, acts of police violence and racial profiling incidents have captured national attention. Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma says “A Juneteenth holiday is just the impetus and enabler of the change that we want to see…As a nation, as a collective, we’ve never really acknowledged the 250-plus years of slavery, and the depth of it, and the trauma it caused and the wealth it created.”


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