Juneteenth, now federally recognized, celebrates the emancipation of African Americans who were enslaved. But the history of this holiday is not as simple as commemorating one singular day in the 19th century.
On paper, Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865. This is the formal day that African American communities in Galveston, Texas, received official word from Major General Gordon Granger of their emancipation and the end of the Civil War.
Corey D.B. Walker, director of Wake Forest University's African American studies program, says that Juneteenth celebrates myriad emancipation moments.
“This is a really, a complex phenomena that can't just be reduced to a single day,” says Walker. “Instead, Juneteenth should be seen as a kaleidoscope of how freedom is delayed and denied throughout the Americas.”
Walker cites celebrations in 1808 after the U.S. effectively abolished the transatlantic slave trade, and the 1834 ending of slavery in the British West Indies as part of this tradition of celebrating freedom.
Juneteenth became federally recognized in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making it the 11th federal holiday in the United States — and the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.
During a time of escalating racially motivated violence, emboldened white supremacist groups, and tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, Walker says this designation amplifies the holiday and reminds us that there are issues that must be continually addressed.
“The ensconcing of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, it forces us to confront that tragic history in order that we may build a more democratic and more equal and more just America,” Walker says.