What Is Juneteenth, Exactly?

Consider this your guide to all things Juneteenth, including a thorough breakdown of the holiday’s history, its significance, and the most meaningful ways to celebrate.

Photo: Getty / Photo Illustration by Jo Imperio

Despite what you might've learned in elementary school, the Fourth of July is not actually Independence Day for all Americans. See, it wasn't until 87 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, that Black Americans were officially free as well. But even after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, many people were still enslaved — that is, however, until 1865. Only on this monumental day (more than two years after the abolishment of slavery!) was true liberty and justice available for all, and, thus, an independence day was born: Juneteenth.

What Is Juneteenth and On What Day Is It Celebrated?

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the official end of legal slavery in the U.S. And no, it is not the same day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all "persons here as slaves" within the Confederate states "henceforth shall be free." That, dear readers, was in 1863 and almost completely symbolic as many people remained enslaved for another two+ years. I'll explain...

On June 19, 1865 — about two months after the end of the Civil War — Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, where he established that the state was now under Union rule and, therefore, the 250,000 slaves that lived there were to be freed. Granger's exact words? "All slaves are free," though many slaveholders illegally kept their slaves to complete one more harvest season, according to PBS. It's important to note that this happened more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Meaning, from January 1, 1863 to June 19, 1986 hundreds of thousands of Black Americans unknowingly remained enslaved in the Lone Star State after they had been federally freed. Let that sink in.

Now, the Emancipation Proclamation did apply to Texas since it was a Confederate state. So, many are left to wonder, "how did this happen?!" There are a lot of theories as to why slavery remained untouched for so long in Texas: news traveled slowly in the 1860s, slave owners purposely withheld the information to maintain labor forces, etc. But one of the most circulated reasons is that there was little presence of Union troops in the state to enforce any decrees, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, according to NBC.

So, around June 19, 1866, Black Texans honored the one-year anniversary of their freedom with the first Juneteenth celebration. And as years went on and Black folks migrated out of Texas, the holiday spread and grew with them.

Why Juneteenth Is Celebrated

"It's important across the board that everyone has a chance to learn about these historical moments — this watershed moment — because while they may be situated in [the] African American lived experience of history, they are very much part of the American story and the American fabric," explains Kimberly Simmons, Ph.D., interim director of the Institute for African American Research at the University of South Carolina. (

In other words, Juneteenth, short for "June 19," isn't just tied to to Black history and Black communities; it's an inextricable part of U.S. history. Juneteenth honors the end of slavery in America and the moment that the "self-evident" truths described in the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal with "unalienable rights" — began to apply to every American. It marks the end of an era of blatant hypocrisy present in America from the very beginning and the start of a path towards racial redemption — something that is still being pursued today. And while it's part of every American's history, the holiday indisputably represents the strength and resilience of Black Americans.

What Is the Best Way to Celebrate Juneteenth?

On June 17 2021, Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday, according to CNN. Yup, that's right: After years of just being recognized in certain states (and D.C.) as a state holiday, Juneteenth's solidified its place as a legal, national celebration of the end of slavery. Cue the parades, cookouts, and other festivities. Speaking of which…

The earliest Juneteenth celebrations began with newly freed slaves gathering for prayer and spiritual singing. Other rituals such as barbecuing, parading, and performing historical reenactments to commemorate freedom still continue today. In the early days of Juneteenth, there was not much interest from people outside of the Black community, and some landowners even barred public property from being used for the celebrations. In response, a group of former slaves raised $1000 in 1872 to purchase what is now known as Emancipation Park in Houston. The goal? To provide Black Americans with a safe place for them to gather for Juneteenth festivities.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a decline in Juneteenth celebrations as freedoms were again stripped away from Black Americans with the introduction of Jim Crow laws. Also at play? The fact that school teachings became increasingly whitewashed, swapping out the events of June 19, 1865 in lieu of the narrative promoting Abraham Lincoln as the "great abolitionist." Thankfully, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s led to a resurgence of the holiday as Black Americans began to look back at parallels to their roots and ancestors. And, most recently, the holiday gained even more momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement. (

You can celebrate Juneteenth this year by cheering on a local parade (check out your city or town's website to find out about potential events) or gathering with friends and family. Many Americans have decades-old Juneteenth traditions that help them celebrate the holiday and their history. For example, Simmons' family has a custom of drinking bright red hibiscus tea as a nod to the West African roots of many slaves.

Even if you don't get the chance to go celebrate with your community, be sure to take time to further educate yourself on the full history of Black Americans — something that should be done year-round, not just during Juneteenth. You can do this through reading books or articles by reputable sources and Black authors. More of a visual learner? Go ahead and watch movies or documentaries made by and about Black people, such as the 2020 film Miss Juneteenth on Amazon Prime. (See more: What to Read, Watch, Listen to, and Learn from to Make the Most of Juneteenth)

Overall, everyone should focus on "the significance of Juneteenth as a day of recognizing, commemorating and thinking about freedom and what it really means not just for African Americans, but for all of us," says Simmons. And, remember, such reflection should not be Juneteenth-dependent. Be sure to find ways to incorporate the heart of this holiday in your daily life.

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