How Juneteenth became a federal holiday and the bumpy road it took to get there – Grid News

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How Juneteenth became a federal holiday and the bumpy road it took to get there

Sunday, June 19, marks the second time the White House officially recognizes Juneteenth — a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black people that more than 30 percent of private employers now offer as a paid day off. But the holiday has a much longer history than that; it has been commemorated in regions across the country since the 18th century. The rest of the country is just finally catching up.

Getting the government to officially mark the day is due largely to the efforts of passionate Black activists like 95-year-old Opal Lee, a retired Texas teacher who walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to push for its recognition back in 2016.

The movement gained steam in Congress following protests across the country after George Floyd was killed by police in 2020. The following winter, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, alongside Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) reintroduced a bill in February they had tried to pass once before to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“The freedom of all Americans which Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation,” Cornyn said in a statement that February. “A federal Juneteenth holiday would represent a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality.”

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Still, in the Senate, bills that might otherwise pass by unanimous consent or voice vote can be delayed by just one senator. In this case, it was held up in the Senate by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin for months, who said another federal holiday would be an additional cost to taxpayers who subsidize federal workers’ days off. But last June he abruptly dropped his objection, and the Senate unanimously passed the bill.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on June 17, 2021, making Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday in the U.S.

Today, 45 percent of Americans believe Juneteenth should be a federal holiday compared to 35 percent last year, but only 17 percent claim to know “a lot” about the holiday, according to a Gallup poll.

Grid spoke with Brenda Stevenson, a historian specializing in Black history at the University of California at Los Angeles, about how and why Juneteenth finally got the recognition it deserves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Why is it called Juneteenth, and how did it become a holiday?

Juneteenth is a celebration of legislative freedom for African Americans or people of African descent who were enslaved in the U.S. It began in the 1860s, particularly around 1865. It [started] as the Civil War ended and African Americans were able to benefit from the Emancipation Proclamation, which was in 1863. Later, the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

We call it Juneteenth because one of the last places to release enslaved people from slavery was in Galveston, Texas, and on June 19 it was announced by General Gordon Granger of the Union army that the Civil War had ended and Black people had become freed from slavery and have equal rights with other people in the country.

I think oftentimes people forget that part of it. We think about relief from slavery, but we don’t think about the equal rights part to it which was placed in law through various amendments: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments during Reconstruction.

Why did Juneteenth become a federal holiday when a celebration like, say, Kwanzaa isn’t recognized by the government?

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It was a result of many, many years of people working very diligently to make it a state holiday to be recognized and then a federal holiday as well. But people have been celebrating it for years, whether it was called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, etc.

Freedom for Black people has been something that’s been celebrated really since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Even before that, it was celebrated at the end of the American Revolution in those places that were gradually releasing Black people from enslavement.

Enslavement has been oppositional to the “ideals” of the American Revolution and of the founding of the country. To say that it’s a free democratic society when you have a large part of the population enslaved ... really does rub against what is supposed to be the U.S. narrative.

Do you think recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday is enough to commemorate this legacy?

It’s nice to have a federal holiday, but people have to recognize that this was an important part of American history, Black history and history of the world because the U.S. had the largest slave society in the 18th century. I think that’s all very important.


I think that we all want Black people to be equal within our society, and as a Black American, I know nothing less than full equality is what Black people, what I want, and what Black people deserve. Any measure that the federal government can take to ensure that is going to be important — essential.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.