This year is the 156th anniversary of the holiday, which marks the end of slavery in the United States

By Andrea Wurzburger and Janine Puhak
Updated June 18, 2021 08:30 AM
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Juneteenth flag
Credit: Nati Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

For 156 years, the Black community has celebrated Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery and the independence of countless enslaved people that actually came two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The holiday, also known as Black Independence Day, isn't widely taught in schools. But that will likely change: on June 18, 2021, it was declared a federal holiday after President Joe Biden signed a bill passed by both the House and Senate making it so. Here are some things you should know about the U.S.'s latest federal holiday.

What Is Juneteenth?

The longest-running African-American holiday in the United States, Juneteenth is short for June Nineteenth, and marks the day that slavery ended in America.

Juneteenth
Abraham Lincoln welcomes freed slaves in Richmond, Virginia
| Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty

The Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery, was issued by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, but it took until 1865 for the last enslaved people to be freed. That's because the proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control, but people in Confederate states weren't the only ones who enslaved people of African descent. In fact, there were border states and rebel territories that continued to keep enslaved people. Texas, as a result, actually became a hotspot for enslavers who fled their states with the people they were enslaving.

On June 19, 1865, federal troops, led by General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, and took control of the state, marking the official end of slavery as the state's 250,000 enslaved people were freed.

The year 2021 marks the 156th anniversary of the holiday.

Was Juneteenth the End of Slavery?

Although General Granger announced that all enslaved people were to be freed, enslavers and plantation owners were left to announce the news and often waited until after the harvest season or until a government official came to enforce the proclamation themselves.

Because the Emancipation Proclamation also did not apply to states in the Union, remaining enslaved people were not liberated until the 13th amendment was ratified on Dec. 18, 1865.

Even after the ratification of the 13th amendment, Black people were often forced into other forms of servitude and a new type of slavery.

When Was the First Juneteenth Celebration?

Juneteenth
Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty

In 1866, the first Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas and was known as "Freedom Day" and then "Jubilee Day." It included prayer services, barbecues, music and celebrations that eventually spread across the country as the newly freed Black people moved throughout the nation.

Is Juneteenth a Federal Holiday?

Juneteenth
2015 Juneteenth celebration in Denver
| Credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty

Now it is, though it's been a long road to get there. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday in 1979. Today, 48 states and Washington, D.C., recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance, the Associated Press reported.

Though Hawaii passed a law in April to decree June 19 as an emancipation celebration, it's not clear if Gov. David Ige signed the bill. If the legislation is approved, South Dakota will be the only state not to recognize Juneteenth as so. Earlier this year, senators in the Mount Rushmore State passed a measure to mark the observance, but the bill failed to make it through the House.

On a national level, in June, both the Senate and the House swiftly passed legislation to establish the day as a federal holiday. On June 18, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law.

"I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president," Biden said, "not because I did it, you did it, Democrats and Republicans," the president said. "It's an enormous, enormous honor."

"For too long, we have tried to whitewash our nation's history instead of confronting the uncomfortable and painful truth," said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) of S.475, per WITI. "This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future."

How Can I Celebrate Juneteenth in 2021? 

With millions of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, some cities have announced the resumption of in-person festivities for Juneteenth celebrations and events. 

New York City is hosting its annual three-day Juneteenth summit with a wide variety of programming, and Philadelphia will host its fifth annual Juneteenth Parade and Festival.

In Springfield, Illinois, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will display a rare, signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation from June 15 through July 6, the Associated Press reported.

Juneteenth Lincoln Museum
Credit: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

In Denver, the Juneteenth Music Festival will happen live after a virtual format last year, and the city of Galveston, Texas, plans to go all-out for its popular Juneteenth Parade and Picnic.

In Los Angeles, Juneteenth in L.A. will host its second annual drive-through car parade, rounding out just a few of many events planned across the country.

Beyond these hubs, here are some other ways you can celebrate Juneteenth:

  • Frequent or donate to a small, Black-owned business.
  • Attend a virtual gathering, whether it's a Zoom celebration put on by a museum, your local library, or a virtual shopping event to support Black-owned businesses.
  • Tune in to special programming, like the Smithsonian Channel's multi-day content including original video essays from prominent Black voices and the CBS News-produced docu-series Boiling Point.
  • If the weather's nice, have a small, socially distanced gathering with a small group of friends or family outdoors.
  • Donate to causes that help fight racial injustice like: