Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. This week, the Senate and House voted in favor of commemorating the day that the last enslaved people in the U.S. found out they were free, and on Thursday afternoon, President Biden signed the bill into law.
June 19 goes by a number of names — Black Independence Day, Texas Emancipation Day — but to many Black Americans, it represents freedom. A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and the enslaved people living there learned of their freedom — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As such, the day tells a broader story of how emancipation was woefully delayed for Black people enslaved deep in the Confederacy.
For a long time, though, the holiday slipped under the radar, often dismissed as a “Black holiday,” not something meant for the general public. (One Gallup poll conducted in May found that Black Americans were far more likely than white or Hispanic Americans to say they knew “a lot” or “some” about the day.) In fact, Juneteenth didn’t really become part of the national conversation until last year, after a series of Black Americans were killed in highly publicized cases — and after then-President Donald Trump falsely took credit for popularizing the day in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, widely politicizing the issue.
Most states and Washington, D.C., already recognized Juneteenth as a holiday or day of observance, but only a handful considered it a paid holiday for state employees. Last year, for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to make it a holiday for state workers, while farther south, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam did the same. Similarly, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared Juneteenth an official holiday for city departments and schools, and in Oregon, the Portland City Council made June 19 a paid holiday for city employees as well. Some businesses also give employees the day off: Twitter and the National Football League have both declared Juneteenth company holidays, but most companies have yet to follow suit.
Juneteenth recognized by more states, companies as a holiday
It’s also not clear whether every state will honor Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state workers since neither Congress nor the president had ever declared a holiday binding all 50 states and some Americans aren’t sure whether Juneteenth should even be a federal holiday. In the May Gallup poll, 40 percent said as much, though that may be due in part to a lack of familiarity with the day (28 percent of Americans said they knew “nothing at all” about Juneteenth.) That said, the latest bill’s passage through Congress is still historic. For starters, because of how costly and politically difficult it is to create federal holidays, there hasn’t been a new one since Congress passed a bill in 1983 to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But it’s also a recognition of racial progress that challenges what celebrations have meant in this country.
“Juneteenth challenges a narrative about America’s founding and its treatment of Black Americans overall,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “[T]he emancipation of Black Americans should be celebrated, without question, because it represents a monumental step in freedom for all Americans. But racism keeps us from seeing that reality.”
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Indeed, some lawmakers pushed false narratives about Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to prevent the observance of his birthday as a national holiday. One senator even went as far to claim that King espoused “action-oriented Marxism” and “radical political” views in an attempt to kill the bill creating a holiday in his honor. It took over a decade for Congress to pass the bill, and it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states quit boycotting the holiday. “[King]’s a figure in the iconic popular sense that allows us to feel pretty good about ourselves,” said Brenna W. Greer, a history professor at Wellesley College, explaining why states eventually came around to recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At this point, though, a large part of his legacy has been whitewashed to acknowledge only his non-violent, integrationist activism.
In other words, Martin Luther King Jr. Day symbolizes the best of what America is even if it doesn’t reflect the whole story. Juneteenth, though, is a different case, as it represents delayed freedom, “and for that reason,” Greer said, “it’s very loaded and maybe even threatening as a holiday.”
Of course, we don’t know yet whether states will push back on Juneteenth as some did with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but polls do indicate a divide over who knows about Juneteenth and who thinks we should celebrate it. Last year, when senators proposed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in response to protests against police violence and racial injustice following the killings of Black Americans such as Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, almost half of Americans surveyed in a Harris Poll said they were “not very aware” or “not at all aware” of what Juneteenth was. There’s a racial divide in who thinks Juneteenth should be a holiday, too — 69 percent of Black adults compared with 39 percent of Hispanic adults and 27 percent of white adults in the May Gallup survey. The pollster also found a pretty sharp partisan divide on both awareness of the meaning of Juneteenth (47 percent of Democrats knew “a lot” or “some” about the holiday versus 23 percent of Republicans) and whether to make Juneteenth a holiday (57 percent of Democrats were in favor of doing so versus just 7 percent of Republicans). And given some states’ ongoing battles to ban critical race theory — and, in some cases, any discussion of systemic racism — in public schools, it’s possible that Juneteenth gets sucked into the larger cultural wars, too.
For now, though, Juneteenth’s status as the latest federal holiday is a significant milestone, considering the importance the day holds for many Black Americans. Several people I spoke to said they were already participating in traditional Juneteenth events like gathering for cookouts, going to block parties and festivals, and attending parades — including some who said they’re getting the day off work now, too. For others celebrating Juneteenth, the day centers around civic engagement and education. Claudia Zapata, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas, told me her team will be registering voters during a charity cook-off on Saturday. Even several white Americans, like 20-year-old Jason Boghosian, a student at the University of Connecticut who works in the food-services industry, told me he’s using this Juneteenth as an opportunity to “learn some crucial Black history,” and noted that becoming educated on these things is how some white people do their version of celebrating.
“Juneteenth is a historic and symbolic representation of our liberation from institutionalized and legislative slavery and oppression,” said Jamarr Brown, the president of the Black Austin Democrats who is participating in a Juneteenth parade this weekend. “For me, with Juneteenth, it’s very important to recognize that there is still institutional racism that exists in our system. The day reminds me that, decades later, we still have work to do.”