This week, Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The yearly celebration, which marks the end of slavery in America, has gained heightened attention this year, as a national call for racial justice has swept the United States.
Still, to many outside the African American community, Juneteenth is a relatively unfamiliar holiday. Here’s everything you need to know about the celebration of freedom.
What is Juneteenth?
On June 19, 1865, news arrived in Texas that tens of thousands of enslaved people in that region had been emancipated. Two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Union declared victory in the Civil War, many African Americans in Texas were still living in slavery.
But on the Nineteenth of June, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to declare that the war had ended and slaves were now free. Granger read the following proclamation:
“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 free laborer.”
Though “absolute equality of rights” were still a long way off, for the tens of thousands of enslaved people living in the American Southwest, June 19th marked a day of joy and celebration.
When did it become a holiday?
The first use of the name Juneteenth (which combines the words June and Nineteenth) are dated to 1903 when black southerners celebrated the anniversary of their freedom. Others called it Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.
But it was only occasionally celebrated until the 1950s or 1960s, when it was revived during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, 45 states recognize it as a state holiday or a special day of observance. And this week, members of both houses of Congress have proposed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in all 50 states.
How do you celebrate Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a time for family and friends to gather and enjoy each other’s company. But it is food that definitely takes the spotlight. Many celebrate Juneteenth with an outdoor barbecue, where it’s customary to serve strawberry soda and strawberry pie. Other red foods like red rice (rice with tomatoes), watermelon, and red velvet cake have also become integral to the celebration. The color red is meant to symbolize the blood shed by enslaved ancestors.
It’s also common for black churches to mark Juneteenth with a special service or a picnic that features traditional African American music and hymns.