Juneteenth flag (280585)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sign a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday into law on Thursday. The signing comes a day after Congress passed the bill in a 415-14 vote.

In the 155 years since Juneteenth was first celebrated, the federal government made the move to finally recognize it as a holiday. It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when slaves in Texas learned they were free. Slavery in the United States had been outlawed two and half years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation, but the proclamation had no real effect until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

African Americans in Texas were made aware of their right to freedom on the day Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with federal troops to read the order announcing the end of the Civil War and that all those enslaved were free. The first Juneteenth celebration took place in 1866. The day is also called “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was reintroduced in February by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Edward J. Markey, Tina Smith and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The bill had 60 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle and was unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate.

Juneteenth will be a legal public paid holiday for federal employees. Businesses will not be required to observe the holiday.

“Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” said Jackson Lee. “But it must always remain a reminder to all of us that liberty and freedom are precious birth rights for all Americans, which must be jealously guarded and preserved for future generations.”

This year, for the first time, New York State is officially observing Juneteenth, the holiday on June 19 that commemorates the ending of slavery in America. Last October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation designating Juneteenth a statewide public holiday.

While Juneteenth has been celebrated for decades, 2020 further pronounced the day during America’s racial reckoning and activism in the aftermath of the George Floyd police murder. Several states, companies and educational institutions recognized Juneteenth; however, it is not officially recognized by the federal government.

A poll released by Gallup this week finds just over a third of Americans report having a lot or some knowledge about the Juneteenth celebration. Another 34% report knowing a little about it, while 28% report knowing nothing at all. More than two in three Black Americans say they have a lot or some knowledge about Juneteenth, compared with 40% of Hispanic Americans and 31% of white Americans.

“Coming off of the summer of 2020, there have been a lot of folks that are more aware and in tune that there’s this whole other side of our society,” Gallup Center on Black Voices director

Camille Lloyd told the AmNews. “Folks are maybe more curious especially around issues around the Black experience and understanding more. While we’ve seen, off the summer of 2020, quite a bit of an uptick in awareness about it, we still have a sizable minority that says, ‘I know nothing at all about this important role in our country.’”

In the Gallup poll, 35% of Americans say Juneteenth should be made a federal holiday, while one in four say it should not be. Nearly 70% of Black Americans support a Juneteenth federal holiday with 27% of whites in agreement. In total, 47 states and Washington, D.C. recognize Juneteenth as a holiday.

Steve Williams serves as president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF). The organization was founded in 1994 and promotes Juneteenth education and legislation throughout the country. An online petition on Change.org had 1.6 million signatures in support of making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“Our goal is to bring attention and have people observe and honor the events of Juneteenth,” Williams told the AmNews. “We spend a lot of time talking about the history of Juneteenth, but we don’t talk about what it did and what it does. The fire of freedom is what Juneteenth is really all about and it acknowledges freedom for everybody.”

Events commemorating Juneteenth are happening across the nation including in New York City. Activities range from marches, discussion, performances, festivals, and parades. With focus on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in what was known as “Black Wall Street,” several events are centering on promoting Black businesses.

Officials are hosting the first city sponsored Juneteenth celebration on Friday at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will be in attendance.

One of the city’s oldest commemorations is the annual Juneteenth/Kingfest Celebration by Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem. The event includes a parade through the neighborhood and a street fair in partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. New York Support Group.

Currently in its 28th year, the celebration was started under the leadership of late Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who is the son of late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

“Juneteenth is the day to keep the freedom movement alive,” event coordinator Ade Rasul told the AmNews. “We didn’t become free overnight. There were some trials and tribulations that went into our freedom. Until we realize the importance of us coming together as a people and truly freeing ourselves, we’re not really free at all. We still have a liberation struggle that we have to continue to go through until we can truly say that we have freed ourselves.”