Last week, a new national holiday was added to the calendar and celebrated with a day off before a number of Americans had even heard of it. That doesn’t make Juneteenth any less important as a celebration of freedom.
On June 17, President Biden signed a proclamation naming Juneteenth a federal holiday. The name Juneteenth is a mashup of June and the 19th day of the month.
It commemorates the day in 1865 when federal troops informed slaves in Texas that they had been free since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. The state had refused to abide by Lincoln’s action until the troops moved in after the end of the Civil War earlier that year.
Celebrations, originally called Jubilee Day, began among freedmen in Texas the next year. Texas was the first of 48 states to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
The holiday is significant for African Americans. The freedom it celebrates is still evolving today.
Slavery was not officially banned in the U.S. until ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. Recognition of citizenship for all persons born in the U.S., including former slaves, was delayed until ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
In the 153 years since, resistance to that notion has been pervasive, often violent.
Racial bias is baked into laws and customs. Rights, privileges and benefits assumed by whites and denied to blacks have stripped African-Americans of opportunities to accumulate generational wealth, to move about without restraint or fear and to simply be.
Many states have recently tried to ban the teaching of race as a significant factor in America’s history. Ironically, the latest state to do so is Texas.
Elevation of Juneteenth to a federal holiday is an appropriate recognition of what Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie Bunch III calls the ambiguity and complexity of history.
The Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday can commemorate America’s struggles with slavery, rejoice in the freedom it honors and give us one more reason to celebrate, together.
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