What is Juneteenth? Why is it important? What does its recent visibility in a national conversation about race and equity mean today?
June 19th is recognized as Juneteenth or Freedom Day, commemorating the end of enslavement for African descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, legally abolished slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was the public pronouncement of the end of slavery. Although the scope of enforcement of the Proclamation was limited, for many enslaved blacks, the 1863 pronouncement signaled the end of their servitude. However, it took more than two years to enforce the Proclamations, culminating when a Union general announced freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth is in most regards a celebratory event, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of chattel slavery in America and the long struggle for equality that often follows the ephemeral celebration of freedom. This day signifies liberation and serves as a starting point for measuring the progress of the African diaspora in the U.S., which is why the day is one of pride and festivities. This day also allows for reflection on the efforts of so many Americans, of all hues, orientations, and social standing, to ensure the realization of the American ideal of freedom and equality for all citizens. Juneteenth serves as an opening for deeper conversations about the historical contexts of present-day concerns and a symbol of what is possible when we move forward together.
This year, the observation of Juneteenth is significant in light of the recent passage of legislation declaring June 19th a Federal Holiday. Although federal employees will observe the holiday this year, other employers have already set their calendar of annual holidays and are not able to make adjustments within such a small window of time.