What Is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a holiday that has only recently begun to attract notice. To be fair, Juneteenth is a local holiday, but other local holidays, such as Patriot Day in Massachusetts, are more well known (although in the case of Patriot Day it could be because the events it celebrates – the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord – are much more well known, as well as the fact the Boston Marathon is always run on that day). So what is Juneteenth, anyway, and what is it celebrating?

In 1865, on June 19, word came to Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had set the slaves in the state free. The news was delivered by Union soldiers, two months after the end of the Civil War. The large celebration in Galveston eventually spread across the state. Two years later, Austin proclaimed the first Juneteenth celebration. The first one was on January 1, the day the anniversary was proclaimed, but the holiday was eventually moved to June 19. “Juneteenth” is a combination of the words “June” and “Nineteenth.” It soon became popular all over the former Confederacy and beyond, as those who moved from Texas brought the celebration with them. Barbeque, strawberry-flavored soda, baseball games, family reunions, and rodeos eventually all became part of the standard Juneteenth celebration.

Juneteenth was not the first holiday held to remember the end of the Civil War. Decoration Day, first held in 1868, honored the Civil War dead. Decoration Day eventually became Memorial Day and evolved to remember all soldiers lost in combat. Like Memorial Day, Juneteenth has evolved from a celebration of the freeing of slaves and the end of the Civil War to a more general celebration of those who were once slaves and what they had experienced.

More than twenty-three states currently hold Juneteenth celebrations. Besides Texas, celebrations made the news in Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, Washington DC, and California. One hundred fifty years after the holiday began, many used it to remember the victims of the church shootings in South Carolina. (The church was one of the oldest historically black churches in the United States.)

Juneteenth, like Memorial Day, remembers the grim and terrible time when the nation turned on itself. Also like Memorial Day, Juneteenth is ultimately a celebration of the end of that conflict and a reminder that despite all that, it managed to stay together. There’s not much better a thing to remember than that.

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