Comment Writer Alex Cooke discusses the history behind Juneteenth and the media traction it has recently gained
Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery in Texas. Its name originates from the portmanteau of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth’, as celebrations take place on the nineteenth of June each year. The holiday began after the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865. This came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, where Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in Confederate states ‘shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.’ However, in Texas slavery continued for two years after the proclamation, as slave owners continued to keep their slaves until they were forced to obey Lincoln’s proclamation. Also, many slave owners from other states moved to Texas in order to keep their slaves. This continued until the Union army general Gordon Granger and other federal troops arrived in Galveston on June nineteenth, to announce that in Texas all slaves were now free.
Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1865, but its popularity has evolved over time. Initially, rural areas and church grounds were used as locations for the celebrations, due to resistance towards using public spaces for them. It then spread throughout the Southern States of America and food became a focus of the holiday. Juneteenth’s popularity waned in the 1960s as the civil rights movement gained momentum. This was seemingly due to the lack of interest in celebrating emancipation when many African Americans were still denied basic freedoms and rights. Nonetheless, in the 1970s there seemed to be a revival in the celebration of Juneteenth, as in 1980, Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
It has slowly become more widely celebrated throughout the United States, although four states still do not recognise it as a national observance: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Hawaii. Activists have called for Juneteenth to be recognised as a federal holiday, which means it would be acknowledged in all states, and state officials would have paid holiday. There are currently ten federal holidays, including Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. There are over forty national observances, which include Memorial Day and Mother’s Day. Currently, only four states mark Juneteenth as a paid holiday: New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia only recently signed the executive order for Juneteenth to become a paid holiday. These legislative changes were in response to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Due to this growing awareness of Juneteenth and of the importance of black history, corporations such as Nike and Uber have given their employees the paid holiday, and many banks also decided to close early for the holiday. However, this could be viewed as a shallow bid for positive publicity since many companies have a poor history with preventing racial inequality and therefore seem to lack a genuine interest in raising awareness. Most notably, the NFL ‘blackballed’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the National Anthem in protest for Black Lives Matter, and yet have now made Juneteenth a company-wide holiday. This has been viewed as hypocritical since the NFL have not publicly apologised directly to Kaepernick regarding how he was treated four years earlier. They released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in response to the killing of George Floyd, but although they apologised ‘not listening to NFL players earlier,’ they did not mention or apologise to Kaepernick.
Despite this hypocrisy, the expanding recognition of Juneteenth is a step in the right direction. An overwhelming awareness has been growing of the fact that our history has been taught from a white and colonial perspective. To completely ignore the experience of people of colour prevents us from understanding how our society is structured and how many injustices today have their roots in the historical mistreatment of minorities. Juneteenth is an important holiday because it acknowledges that slavery didn’t end after the Proclamation of Emancipation, like it is so often taught. It is the longest-running African American holiday, which is why it isn’t well-known or very widely celebrated because for too long black history has been excluded from our education. In order to create an equal society, we need to ensure our culture is not limited to one perspective.
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