- Juneteenth marks the unofficial end to slavery in America. It is a day of celebration and remembrance across the country.
- 47 states, the District of Columbia and a number of private companies have declared the day a holiday.
- Recent protests have raised awareness of racial inequality in society.
For more than a century and a half, annual celebrations have been held across the United States on 19 June to commemorate the end of slavery, a date known as Juneteenth Independence Day.
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Normally a time of feasts, parades and backyard cookouts, this year’s celebrations could be more subdued, or held virtually, in light of the need for social distancing in response to the pandemic.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially outlawed slavery in America on 1 January 1863, but it took a further two and a half years of civil war for slaves to finally gain their freedom.
A step back in time
The original Juneteenth – a portmanteau of the words June and 19th – celebration took place in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.
As Union forces overwhelmed the Confederate army, southern slave-owning states like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana fell. But many southern planters were reluctant to liberate their slaves and resisted the Union’s advance, with some making agreements to release their captive labour after the crop harvest and others fleeing west to then-lawless Texas, taking their slaves with them.
Following the surrender of Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee, with many slaves still unaware of their legal right to freedom, Union soldiers visited plantations to help liberate the remaining captives.
Juneteenth marks the day that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to spread the word that the war was over and emancipate the last of those enslaved in Texas. Although the state’s slaves were not the last to be liberated in the country.
Border states still in the Union at that time were exempt from the emancipation order, leaving enslaved people to endure a further six months of forced servitude until slavery was formerly abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the constitution on 18 December 1865.
Many African Americans remained bonded to plantation owners as tenant farmers, or sharecroppers, long after slavery was abolished however. Despite being legally free, for many ex-slaves leaving their former plantation could be a dangerous venture.
Celebrate and remember
The celebrations that followed the events in Galveston laid the foundations of today’s annual festivities marking the end of slavery, which were carried across America as liberated slaves migrated. Juneteenth is both a day of celebration and a day of remembrance for the suffering borne of the slave era.
From private family events to large commemorative parades, that day in Texas is marked across the US, emulating many of the traditions started by the newly freed slaves, such as readings of Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation, sharing cuisines specific to African Americans and holding religious services.
Texas declared Juneteenth a statewide holiday in 1980, setting a precedent for 46 other states and the District of Columbia to follow.
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This year, Juneteenth celebrations come as a wave of protests sweep America in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which have refocused attention on racial inequalities that still persist more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery.
Companies including Twitter, Nike and the NFL have declared Juneteenth a paid holiday, but as yet the day has not been declared a federal holiday.