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Juneteenth: 5 Things to Know About Our New Federal Holiday

Juneteenth, an observance that began more than 150 years ago in the African American community, is an occasion all freedom-loving Americans will now honor.

An 1880 Juneteenth celebration, with Rev. Jack Yates at far left; public domain

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that received overwhelming support in both houses of Congress proclaiming Juneteenth the newest federal holiday. Here are five things to know about this new holiday:

1. What is celebrated on Juneteenth? On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and his men read General Order No. 3 at several locations throughout Galveston, Texas, finally informing the enslaved African Americans of that region that they were free—two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, and two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

While Juneteenth commemorates the symbolic end of slavery in the United States, the liberation of enslaved people in two border states, Kentucky and Delaware, didn’t come to pass until December 18, 1865.

2. When was Juneteenth first observed? On June 19, 1866, freedmen in Galveston organized Jubilee Day, the first celebration of Juneteenth. At this celebratory event, formerly enslaved people in attendance were given instructions on how to exercise their newly recognized right to vote. Over time, as the annual celebration spread throughout Texas and across the country, Jubilee Day became known as Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “19th.”

3. Were there obstacles to the continuance of Juneteenth? In many states and municipalities, Black Americans were denied use of public spaces, such as parks and parade grounds due to segregationist laws. In many cases, African Americans were forced to pool their resources to purchase land upon which they could hold their Juneteenth gatherings.

In 1872, Reverend Jack Yates, a freedman who was the pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, paired with Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association. The group raised $1,000 to purchase ten acres in the Houston area, a parcel of land they named Emancipation Park, which served as the home of the Houston area’s annual Jubilee Day celebration.

The Juneteenth flag
       The Juneteenth Flag

4. Why does Juneteenth have its own flag? According to BostonGlobe.com, Ben Haith, the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf and others collaborated in the design of the Juneteenth flag, which includes several elements that are symbolic: The white star stands for the Lone Star state of Texas, where the events Juneteenth commemorates occurred. The starburst around the star represents a nova, the birth of a new star, just as the end of slavery was a new beginning for enslaved African Americans.

The flag’s arc represents a new horizon, new opportunities for Black Americans, and the colors of the flag—red, white and blue—symbolizes that with the abolishment of slavery, formerly enslaved African Americans—and their descendants—were finally fully recognized as American citizens, with all the rights that entails.

5. How many federal holidays are there? Juneteenth is the 11th federal holiday and the first one so designated since Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983. The original federal holidays designated by Congress were New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day.

The other federal holidays are George Washington’s Birthday (created in 1879), Decoration Day (now Memorial Day; 1888), Armistice Day (now Veterans Day, 1894) and Labor Day (1894) and Columbus Day (1934).

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