Explainer: With US Prez Joe Biden declaring 19 June a federal holiday, understanding the significance of Juneteenth

The vast majority of states recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.

FP Staff June 18, 2021 15:45:32 IST
Explainer: With US Prez Joe Biden declaring 19 June a federal holiday, understanding the significance of Juneteenth

In this 19 June, 2020, file photo, protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Photo via The Associated Press/John Minchillo

This year on 17 June, United States President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed a bill into law declaring 19 June as a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of the Black Americans and the end of slavery in the US. The day (19 June), known popularly as Juneteenth, will be the twelfth legal public holiday (including Inauguration Day that happens every four years) recognised by the federal government, and the first new one to come into effect since former president Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr Day into law in 1983.

“This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Biden said. The House voted 415-14 on 16 June to send the bill to Biden, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously the day before. Biden noted the overwhelming support for the bill from lawmakers in both parties. He had run for president promising to unite the country and work with Republicans, but his first major legislation to provide more COVID relief to American consumers and businesses was passed along party lines and he has struggled to unite lawmakers to support a major public works bill.

“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” Biden said.

Biden signed the legislation surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, Sens Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. He was introduced by Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation’s first African-American vice president.

“We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” Harris said.

The White House moved quickly to hold the signing ceremony after the House debated the bill and then voted for it Wednesday.

“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognise the most important milestones,” said Rep Carolyn Maloney, D-NY “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”

Explainer With US Prez Joe Biden declaring 19 June a federal holiday understanding the significance of Juneteenth

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, on Thursday, 17 June, 2021, in Washington. Photo via The Associated Press/Evan Vucci

What is Juneteenth?

The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday is also called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day.

The vast majority of states recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.

What is the historical significance of Juneteenth?

While the rest of the world might find it new, Juneteenth celebrations have been around for a long time and its origins date back to 1865 in Galveston, Texas, when a union general named Gordon Granger along with around 2,000 troops arrived at the coastal town and read to more than 2,50,000 enslaved African-Americans the General Order No 3 which officially ended slavery in the US. The order read:

"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labourer."

Explainer With US Prez Joe Biden declaring 19 June a federal holiday understanding the significance of Juneteenth

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (dt 1864). This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.

And with that announcement, Granger put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by former president Abraham Lincoln earlier on 1 January 1863.

The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. Its observance has continued around the nation and the world since. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Why is it so relevant now?

“In 1776 the country was freed from the British, but the people were not all free,” Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. “19 June 1865, was actually when the people and the entire country was actually free.”

As the US currently manoeuvres its way amid the racially and politically charged social environment, the observation of Juneteenth as a national holiday becomes all the more important. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African-Americans at the hands of police led to nationwide protests with people taking to the streets and social media calling out police brutality and institutionalised racism in the US. The culmination of these protests was the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained massive support not just in the US but across the globe.

While the cultural debate around the notions of 'patriotism' and 'national history' is stronger than ever, given the highly polarised political ideologies in the country, Juneteenth also comes as a reminder as to how slavery (its importance, history and impact), racism and foundations of the country need to be looked at, remembered and taught to children.

Explainer With US Prez Joe Biden declaring 19 June a federal holiday understanding the significance of Juneteenth

A Juneteenth parade in Austin in 2011. Top row: Miss Juneteenth Desiree Hicks, 18, left, and Miss Lil Juneteenth, Deaqujwyanta Sorrells, 11. Bottom row, from left: Aubri Brent, 12; Deawntanique Sorrells, 5; and Jada Pickens, 9. Photo courtesy: Rodolfo Gonzalez, Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

How is it being celebrated this year?

Observations of Juneteenth in the US vary from place to place, however, the spirit of celebration, unity and freedom resounds across the board. There are public readings and singing, picnics and church services, and in some states rodeos, contests, beauty pageants, concerts and parades are also organised.

Celebrations and food go hand in hand, and Juneteenth is no exception. Barbecues are one of the most ubiquitous and popular ways of celebrating Freedom day among the African-American population in the country. Friends and family unite and rejoice over some delectable recipes and food preparations. So much is the importance of this day, that a dish named "the Marcus Garvey salad" — made with red, green, and black beans — was coined after the Black activist.

Last year, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebrations were largely subdued. However, this year, there's a lot in the pipeline. As 2021 Juneteenth falls on a Saturday, federal workers will observe the holiday on Friday, with most of the government offices being closed in honour of this newly declared holiday. Public schools would also be closed. Many businesses and corporate firms, including several Fortune 500 companies, had already put Juneteenth as part of their leave calendar beginning last year. Twitter, Square (a mobile payment company), NFL, Nike, Best Buy among others had given employees a day off in 2020 and would continue that this year as well. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft have kept it flexible and given their employees the provision of an optional holiday.

A report in The New York Times suggests Galveston will dedicate a 5,000 square-foot mural, entitled Absolute Equality, on the spot where General Granger informed enslaved African-Americans of their freedom. This will be in addition to the parades and picnics that the city organises every year. In Atlanta, all the celebratory activities have been downsized, but there are plans for a parade and music festival at Centennial Olympic Park. Similar events are scheduled in parts of Maryland, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

— Inputs from the Associated Press.

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