Black American History For Dummies
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On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making June 19 an annual federal holiday in the United States. The day has come to be known as "Juneteenth," a mashup of "June" and "nineteenth," and has been celebrated as the end of legal enslavement in the United States.

The holiday recognizes June 19, 1865, when Union army soldiers, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, told the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and they'd been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Lincoln January 1, 1863. The unconfirmed story is that enslaved people held in that coastal city were the last to learn of the end of the war — and the end of legal enslavement.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” President Biden said during the signing ceremony at the White House. “They don’t ignore those moments of the past. They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Juneteenth Emancipation Day historic photo “Officers of the day” at a Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration in Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900. Photo: PICA-05484 Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Juneteenth is a second independence holiday

The holiday's official name is Juneteenth National Independence Day, and it's the second annual celebration of independence in the United States, the first being July 4. That observance marks the day the 13 English colonies in North America ratified the Declaration of Independence, announcing their separation from English rule.

Juneteenth National Independence Day commemorates when independence extended to everyone in the United States and freed nearly 4 million people from enslavement.

With Biden's signature on the bill in 2021, Juneteenth became the 12th federal holiday — meaning all nonessential federal employees are given a paid holiday and financial markets are closed.

It joins New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Christmas as fixed-date holidays, or holidays that are celebrated on either the same calendar date or the closest weekday if the date falls on Saturday or Sunday. The United States celebrated the first federal Juneteenth holiday on Friday, June 18, 2021, because June 19 fell on a Saturday that year.

Since 2021, 49 states formally observe or celebrate the day in some way; eight states include it as a paid holiday for nonessential state employees.

Recent events raised awareness of Juneteenth

Although many Americans were only vaguely familiar with Juneteenth before it became a federal holiday, it's been celebrated for more than 150 years. But the day drew widespread public attention in 2020. Civil rights protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, raised awareness of Juneteenth.

Also in 2020, public outcry over a campaign event in Tulsa, Oklahoma scheduled for June 19 by then-President Donald Trump, captured national media attention. Trump’s opponents argued that holding the event on Juneteenth in that city, where a massacre of Black citizens happened in 1921, would be disrespectful.

Once again, the uproar and media attention raised awareness of Juneteenth among many more Americans. Trump rescheduled his campaign event. Major U.S. companies including Nike, Twitter, Target, and John Wiley & Sons (home of For Dummies) offered Juneteenth as a holiday for employees that year.

The long wait for freedom and citizenship

Although Juneteenth has traditionally celebrated the end of enslavement of Black people in the United States, slavery did not formally come to an end nationwide until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Before that amendment abolished slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed only enslaved people in the states that seceded from the country at the beginning of the Civil War.

The legal status of people enslaved in states that didn’t secede but allowed enslavement — Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware — was unclear until the Thirteenth Amendment passed. Enslavement was not fully banned in the United States until 1866 when treaties with Native American tribes formally ended enslavement in territories controlled by those tribes.

Finally, formerly enslaved people did not legally become US citizens with full protection under the law until ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment on July 28, 1868.

There's still debate over the date when legal enslavement of Black people in the United States actually ended. But, whatever the actual date, Juneteenth now marks the end of that painful period of U.S. history.

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