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Ask Civics 101: Why Is The Holiday Called 'Juneteenth,' And What Is The Significance?


Our listener question this week is timely: Why is the holiday called Juneteenth, and what is the significance?

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Submit it here!

You may recall that last Saturday, June 19th, was Juneteenth. Maybe your company gave you that Friday off, like NHPR did, or you saw a post about the day on social media. Maybe you noticed that President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on Thursday, June 17th, making Juneteenth a federal holiday in the United States. No matter how you heard about it, you might be wondering, like the listener whose question inspired this post, what exactly Juneteenth is, where its name comes from, and what the day represents. If so, read on!

Juneteenth honors the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. The name “Juneteenth” is a blend of two words: “June” and “nineteenth.” It’s believed to be the oldest African-American holiday, with annual celebrations on June 19th in different parts of the country dating back to 1866. In addition to recognizing the end of slavery, many take the day to celebrate African-American culture.

Now for some history. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. He proclaimed “that all persons held as slaves” in the rebelling Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” This came almost three years into the Civil War. However, enslaved people weren’t automatically freed by Lincoln’s pen, as it couldn’t be implemented in places still under Confederate control. Despite the proclamation, slavery continued in Texas, the westernmost Confederate state. On April 9th, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, marking the end of the war between North and South.

About two and a half years after Lincoln issued the proclamation and just over two months after the war ended, federal troops entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19th, 1865 (about an hour southeast of Houston). Led by Major General Gordon Granger (Union Army), these troops arrived to assume control of the state and to guarantee that all enslaved residents were freed. On that day, Granger issued General Order No. 3 to notify Texans of the Civil War’s end, enforce President Lincoln’s proclamation, and inform the roughly 250,000 enslaved people of their freedom:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” - Maj. Gen. Granger, Order No. 3

These quarter million enslaved people represented the last in the country to be told of their emancipation, giving Juneteenth its unique significance. The following December, slavery was finally abolished in the United States when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. In 1866, free Texans began the first annual “Jubilee Day” celebration on June 19th.

In 1979, over a century after federal troops marched into Galveston, Juneteenth was first officially recognized by Texas. Besides becoming the newest federal holiday, Juneteenth is acknowledged in 49 states and the District of Columbia. South Dakota remains the only state that has not yet recognized Juneteenth annually either as a state holiday or a day of observance. Today, at least 10 states - Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington - honor Juneteenth as an official paid state holiday.

Mitchell Scacchi is an intern with the Creative Production Unit. He’s from Goffstown, New Hampshire, the place he has called home for all 21 years of his life. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 2021.

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