Why we celebrate Juneteenth

“Juneteenth doesn't feel fixed like July 4th. July 4th feels fixed in 1776, whereas Juneteenth always feels fluid,” said Angela Tate, curator of African American Women's History at NMAAHC

In 2021, Juneteenth has been amplified on popular media platforms, promoted in corporate America, officially recognized in numerous states, and voted into law as a federal holiday.

This day of remembrance with roots in Texas has been catapulted into the mainstream, and as we bear witness to what feels like a sudden, and in some cases, exploitative rise in popularity, it is all the more important to maintain focus on the real reasons why we celebrate. 

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Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas (Credit: Mrs. Charles Stephenson)

On June 19, 1865 an estimated 2,000 Union troops, including regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce General Order No. 3.

On that day, roughly 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston were finally informed of their freed status—almost two and half years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Since then, Juneteenth (sometimes called Emancipation Day) has marked a symbolic end to slavery in the U.S.

Texas’ Emancipation Day stands out because it is the latest known announcement of freedom to enslaved peoples in the US, and it’s a gateway to many other stories detailing the experiences of Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. 

States including Florida (May 20, 1865), Kentucky (possibly August 8, 1863), and eastern Mississippi (May 8, 1865) also have Emancipation Days that mark the first knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Juneteenth flag, which was designed by National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation founder Ben Haith has a shining white star in the middle of it, symbolizing freedom for Black Americans in all 50 states.

People holding Juneteenth flag (Source: Juneteenth Unityfest website)

“Juneteenth doesn’t feel fixed like July 4th. July 4th feels fixed in 1776, whereas Juneteenth always feels fluid and always willing to be adaptable to the incoming and upcoming generations,” said Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women’s History at NMAAHC.

“[Juneteenth] has a multiplicity of meanings to people of African descent in the United States. They also see it as relevant to Africa, the Caribbean, and any other place where there’s an African diasporic community. It’s a continuous struggle, a continuous fight, a continuous place of remembrance,” Tate adds. 

For years, Black leaders and activists like Haith, Ms. Opal Lee, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Rev. Ronald Myers, and many others have worked to raise the public awareness about the significance of Juneteenth.

We have those leaders to thank for the progress in Juneteenth’s prominence, secured by the passage of the Juneteenth Independence Day Act. 

Juneteenth Marked With Celebrations And Marches In Cities Across America
People march from The National Museum of African American History and Culture to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Juneteenth. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“At every opportunity we have to help people understand that even once freedom was declared on the East coast, it took almost two years for people who lived in the South to have those same freedoms. They were free in law but not free in body and that is what we are dealing with right now,” said attorney Monique Pressley on a Thursday episode of Roland Martin Unfiltered. 

Persisting political frustrations and corporate schemes only prove the need for the Black liberation holiday we have in Juneteenth, and we celebrate it for many reasons.  

We celebrate to honor our ancestors whose lives were changed by their freed status, to correct history and tell the whole truth, to implement liberation strategies, from giving back to Black-led organizations to stimulating Black businesses, and so on.

And we celebrate for sheer joy, which is a revolutionary act in the face of ongoing justice.

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