If you don’t know what Juneteenth is, it’s probably because the significance of this historical date isn’t often taught in American history classes. Despite honoring the abolition of slavery, June 19 — amalgamated to create “Juneteenth” — isn’t a federally recognized holiday, and often isn’t acknowledged at all. Still, the cultural and historical importance of Juneteenth keeps the date a widely celebrated occasion within many Black communities. If you’re unfamiliar with why Juneteenth is celebrated, read on for the background of this American milestone.

When did slavery end in the United States?

Eagle with banner "Proclamation of Emancipation" and U.S. flags over portrait of Abraham Lincoln above text framed along the sides with vignettes about slavery, escape, education of African Americans, and the American cotton industry. B
Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery in the United States, though the specific date — June 19, 1865 — is linked to the abolition of slavery in Texas. Slavery did not end swiftly in the U.S. in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day.

According to historian Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the proclamation is likely the “most misunderstood document in American history” because its impacts were relatively limited at the time, and it was part of Lincoln’s wartime strategy. By declaring an end to slavery in the rebellious southern states, Lincoln could remove the workforce that provided food and other necessities to Confederate troops, not to mention bolster the Union army with newly freed Black soldiers who were promised citizenship following the war.

And while Lincoln’s order freed “all persons held as slaves” within states that had seceded from the United States, it did not provide freedom for enslaved people in Union states where slavery was still legally permitted (specifically Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky). It was actually the 13th Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, that guaranteed an official end to the practice of slavery after nearly 250 years on American shores.

Why did it take so long for enslaved people to be freed?

Print from 1864 of a soldier reading the Emancipation Proclamation
Credit: The New York Public Library

Although emancipation was supposed to end slavery in Confederate states, effective at midnight on January 1, 1863, states outside the Union didn’t immediately acknowledge the order’s authority. Because of the country’s size, news traveled slowly, meaning some slaves didn’t know for months or years that they had been freed. And because Confederate states considered themselves sovereign from the United States, many pro-slavery states ignored the declaration altogether. In some communities, slaveholders actively worked to suppress the news to prevent enslaved people from leaving. Many enslaved people did not discover they were free until Civil War battles brought Union troops nearby to announce the news. Some historical accounts detail the purposeful hiding of slavery’s end until as late as 1868.

If emancipation happened earlier, why is June 19 recognized?

Map of the United States, the British provinces, and Mexico issued in 1849
Credit: The New York Public Library

Juneteenth’s significance comes from the freeing of those enslaved in Texas. The state remained a Confederate stronghold because of its distance from Union forces, and many slaveholders purposefully relocated to the state as a way to continue the practice of slavery. On June 19, 1865 — two months after the official end of the Civil War — Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3, notifying more than 250,000 enslaved people within the state that they had been granted freedom, though Granger initially urged them to remain with their slaveholders and demand wages for their work.

Naturally, formerly enslaved people looked to celebrate the anniversary of obtaining their freedom, but selecting one particular date to do so initially proved difficult. After all, Black Americans were freed at staggered dates following the Emancipation Proclamation. Black community leaders of the time, such as Frederick Douglass, suggested a variety of historically relevant dates. A strong contender was January 1, marking the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, since it was already celebrated by many free and formerly enslaved people. January 13 was also considered, referring to when Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865; with that same idea, December 6 was an option, recognizing when the amendment was officially ratified that same year.

While the national debate for the celebration of freedom continued, freed people in Texas chose to celebrate June 19, the day most relevant to their freedom story. Celebrations soon spread to neighboring states as Black citizens left the communities that enslaved them in an effort to find lost family members and start new lives. Juneteenth’s popularity created a de facto holiday that took root in many Black communities.

Is Juneteenth formally recognized and celebrated?

2019 Juneteenth Parade at Malcom X Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Credit: Tippman98x / Shutterstock

Unfortunately, early attempts to dampen Juneteenth celebrations created precedence for the date to go unrecognized within many communities. From the early days of Reconstruction — the 12 years following the Civil War in which many communities of color grew and thrived — efforts to segregate society were successful at limiting how Black communities could gather to celebrate Juneteenth. Laws throughout the country restricted parks to white visitors only, forcing freedom celebrations to riverbanks and land outside of town limits until a Black group or community could raise enough money to buy land and develop its own park. (Many of these spaces are aptly named, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.)

Juneteenth didn’t receive formal recognition on the state level until 1980, when Texas became the first state to honor the anniversary by making it a state holiday. Now, 46 states recognize it as a holiday, though there is no federal acknowledgment despite repeated efforts from legislators. Still, many communities gather to mark the date with church services, picnics, dances, and family reunions.

Others use Juneteenth to give back to their communities, and the date is particularly resonant in 2020. With the ongoing worldwide demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many corporations, including Twitter, Nike, and Mastercard, have given their employees the day off and are encouraging them to use the time to focus on their own mental health, to educate themselves on race relations and its history in America, or to volunteer with civil rights organizations.

Because after all, Juneteenth celebrates the occasion when all Americans became free — what better way to honor its significance than to ensure that that freedom includes liberty and justice for all.