What is Juneteenth and could it become a new national holiday?

What is Juneteenth and could it become a new national holiday?
Source: Kathryn Scott Osler

For many in the United States, June 19, or Juneteenth, is among the most important dates on the calendar.

Though it’s not an official federal holiday, it marks one of the most significant moments in US history – the ending of slavery – and is widely celebrated in black communities nationwide. For decades, there has been a push to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

This year, Juneteenth is gaining greater media attention for two reasons. The first is the continuing protests and demonstrations in response to police brutality and racial inequality spawned by the killing of George Floyd. The second is the initial decision by the Trump administration, since reversed, to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on that date.

What is Juneteenth?

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that freed slaves in the Confederate states (not, however, in the northern Union states). Lincoln’s action may have been the official law of the land, but in the land occupied by the Confederacy, the news of Lincoln’s proclamation was slow to travel.

In a bit of historical symmetry, the city of Galveston, Texas, was a Union-occupied city until Confederate forces retook it on January 1, 1863. Neither the news of Lincoln’s proclamation nor the end of the American Civil War, which officially occurred in April 1865, reached Galveston until Union Major General Gordon Granger’s forces arrived in June 1865.

At that time, Galveston was retaken by Union soldiers and, on June 19, 1865, Granger officially declared that the war was over and Texas’ slaves were free. Granger read General Order Number 3, which, among other things, stated unequivocally that “all slaves are free.” Many who were present for Granger’s announcement celebrated the end of the war and the abolishment of slavery.

That celebration became known as Juneteenth, or Black Independence Day, and has since been an annual day of celebration with barbecues, parades, music, religious services and more. Cities and black communities throughout the country hold annual celebrations on this day to recognize the end of slavery and the African heritage of those who were forcibly brought to the Americas.

Growing recognition of Juneteenth

While Juneteenth is not currently a national holiday, 46 states and the District of Columbia recognize June 19 as a state holiday or day of remembrance. Only Hawaii, Montana and North and South Dakota do not currently recognize the day in any formal capacity. In 1980, Texas was the first state to officially declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

In recent weeks, there has been a push to officially make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, with both CNN and Forbes publishing op-eds in favor of it. A 93-year-old Texas woman named Opal Lee has a Change.org petition supporting the creation of the holiday that is more than halfway to reaching its goal of 150,000 signatures.

There are other indications that public awareness of the day is growing. Earlier this month, it was reported by Yahoo Finance that the international sports apparel company Nike would be recognizing Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday for its US workers.

Trump’s rally postponed

Even President Donald Trump appears to acknowledge the importance of the day – or at least the poor optics it created for him.

His campaign had previously announced that he would hold his first rally since the COVID-19 crisis began on June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the resulting uproar over the timing of the rally, it was pushed back a day.

The decision to delay the rally a day, which Trump announced via Twitter, was, in his words, “out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents.”

Trump’s critics, however, have alleged that the initial timing was poor for multiple reasons.

Trump has been accused of sowing racial discord at his rallies and is largely viewed by Americans as having failed on race relations as president. Holding a rally on Juneteenth in the midst of national Black Lives Matter protests was called a “slap in the face to black Americans.”

Those protests have erupted across the country in response to the killings of multiple black people by police officers.

Additionally, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the rally is to be held, was the location of a 1921 racist massacre that killed hundreds of people. The attack took place on what was known as “Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the US at the time.

White supremacist attacks on black wealth in this period in US history is considered one of the causes of wealth disparity in the nation.

How are national holidays created?

While the US Congress has the power to create national holidays, they have so far not moved to do so for Juneteenth.

Since the 1990s, Reverend Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D. and the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign have been pressing Congress to officially recognize June 19 as a federal holiday.

In 2012, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed designating June 19 a national day of observation, which would have made it a yearly day of recognition but not a holiday.

Hutchison’s resolution did not pass through Congress.

On June 14, 2018, Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, introduced a Senate resolution to designate June 19, 2018 as “Juneteenth Independence Day.” The resolution passed the Senate with unanimous consent but did not go to the House of Representatives.

Even if it had been passed by Congress, that resolution would still not have established Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

There are currently 10 federal holidays in the US on which federal employees are given the day off. These holidays are also known as bank holidays because banks are closed and the stock market does not trade.

The most recent day to be designated a federal holiday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which occurs on the third Monday of January and recognizes the birthday of the iconic civil rights leader.

Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at tips@themilsource.com