What you need to know about Juneteenth

By David A. Love

Juneteenth, which takes place June 19th and combines the words “June” and “Nineteenth,” is our Black Independence Day. The holiday commemorates the emancipation of Black people and the end of our enslavement in America on June 19, 1865. We had remained property on July 4, 1776.

This is a day for us to center ourselves as agents in our own liberation, as we reflect on people such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, 200,000 Black Union soldiers, and others who fought and died to get us free. We celebrate Juneteenth but also reflect on our lost family members and our ancestors, lifting our people up in hard times and empowering the community.

Black people were not really free until two months—or two years—after they were free

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, did not “free” enslaved Black people languishing in captivity in Confederate states. The Civil War ended in April 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army. However, Black people in Texas did not know they were free until June 19, when Union Major-General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and read an order informing them of their freedom. Ultimately, however, slavery ended legally with the 13th amendment, which Congress had passed in January, and was ratified in December 1863.

In 1860, there were 4 million enslaved Black people in America, the largest U.S. financial asset worth $4 billion ($43 trillion in today’s dollars), and 250,000 were held captive in Texasover 30% of the state population.

Afro-Mexicans celebrate Juneteenth

There are 2.5 million people of African descent in Mexico, where slavery had been abolished by Vicente Guerrero, the nation’s second president in 1829, who was Black, leading to Texas seceding from Mexico. In the mid-19th century, as many as 10,000 self-emancipated Black folks, called Negros Mascogos, or Black Seminoles, fled the U.S. to Northern Mexico. Today, their descendants celebrate Juneteenth, known as el Día de los Negros, the Day of the Blacks.

National holiday?

Juneteenth began in Texas. As Black Texans migrated, Juneteenth spread to Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. Today, nearly all states and the District of Columbia observe Juneteenth in some form or recognize it as a state holiday. And cities such as Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia have some of the largest events to mark the end of slavery.

“None of us are free, until we are all free,” says Opal Lee, 94, of Fort Worth, Texas, a driving force behind efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate—the Juneteenth National Independence Day Actwould make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

There is a Juneteenth flag

The Juneteenth flag, created by art designer Lisa Jeanne Graf, contains a red, white, and blue color scheme representing the Americanness of the formerly enslaved and their descendants. A white star represents Texas, and a bursting star on the horizon represents freedom.

America is witnessing a Juneteenth revival

Juneteenth celebrations waned in popularity during Jim Crow and the Great Depression, but the Civil Rights and Black Power movements led to a reawakening. A Juneteenth celebration at the Poor People’s March on the Washington Mall two months after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination helped make Juneteenth a national day linked to the civil rights struggle.