Juneteenth: The significance of the holiday and why it's celebrated and commemorated
WASHINGTON - This weekend the nation will take a moment to honor Juneteenth, a symbolic moment in American history.
Juneteenth commemorates when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, two months after the Confederacy had surrendered in the Civil War and about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern states.
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Smithsonian NMAAHC curator explains why Juneteenth is celebrated and commemorated
Mary Elliott, a curator of American Slavery with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, spoke to FOX Television Stations and offered a historical perspective about the holiday and why the nation should celebrate and commemorate the day given what Black people endured throughout history.
"We’re getting to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding. The paradox is that the nation is based on liberty but founded on slavery," Elliot says. "The 1852 slave act regardless of where you stayed the slave had to return to the enslaver. This day (Juneteenth) is also a moment that marks Black freedom and what it meant for this nation to grant freedom to everyone. It wasn’t until the 13th amendment was passed and ended slavery in the nation."
"Also, states that left the union cite slavery in their secession documents. The Emancipation Proclamation Act only freed people in the rebelling states that left the Union. It took the Union army arriving in Galveston, Texas (the last non-rebelling slave state) in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, to tell the last remaining slaves in Texas they were free."
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"Why this day (Juneteenth) is important when it comes to fruition, think about democracy, freedom, and equal protection under the law and citizenship. That moment of freedom is for the nation, it brought us out of the bondage of slavery. The holiday is important to reflect on freedom and reflect on who we are as a nation and who we want to be as a nation."
"It’s important to celebrate who we are as a people, coming out of the bondage of slavery, a moment to think about who we were and who we want to be, and to make sure equality is being manifested."
There have been discussions by some regarding whether Juneteenth should be commemorated or celebrated given the historical importance, but Elliot offers reasons why we should do both.
"Juneteenth should be both, we should always celebrate freedom, but it’s a serious moment that should be commemorated because the nation was founded on slavery, and what are our moral obligations and how do we tell an inclusive history?"
"Our history is told through an African lens where Black people were enslaved. It’s important for all of us to think about what this nation was and how we don’t want to go back to a world that limits people’s freedoms. We need to think of ways we are exercising our freedoms and why those things matter."
"The day should be celebrated the way we celebrate the Fourth of July. This was a nation steep in slavery, and we were able to bring ourselves out of the bondage of slavery and the nation needs to understand what we are capable of doing."
Elliot concludes by offering a unique perspective of what Juneteenth means to her.
"Juneteenth means to me, my mom is from Houston, and some of my great-grandparents were enslaved in Texas and Mississippi, and they were sharecroppers. Juneteenth means to me the strength, tenacity, will, and courage of them to make their way out of seemingly no way, and when we read poetry and hear music and eat certain foods, I think of the joy they had when freedom came, for example the sentiment they felt knowing ‘I get to learn how to read, I can find my relative.’"
"I’m an attorney and one of my favorite classes is constitutional law, and it's important to understand the laws that brought us to this point and brought equality in this country, and it’s important to understand how we got to where we were, how we got to where we are, and how we can get to where we want to be. Juneteenth is a thought-provoking holiday."
Juneteenth events across the country
Juneteenth celebrations will take place across the country this weekend and here’s a list of a few events.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Juneteenth National Independence Day Act
On Feb. 25, 2021, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. It would make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday, with observation falling on June 19.
"Juneteenth honors the end of the years of suffering that African Americans endured under slavery and celebrates the legacy of perseverance that has become the hallmark of the African American experience in the struggle for equality," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who introduced H.R. 1320.
Sen. Edward Markey presented S.475 along with Senators Cory Booker and Tina Smith.
"For too long, we have tried to whitewash our nation’s history instead of confronting the uncomfortable and painful truth," Markey said. "This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future."
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Biden signs bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday
President Joe Biden signed a bill into law last year to make Juneteenth, or June 19, a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
Biden signed into law a bill to make Juneteenth, the 12th federal holiday. The House voted 415-14 in 2021 to send the bill to Biden, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously.
States slow to make Juneteenth a paid holiday
Although almost every state recognizes Juneteenth in some fashion, many have been slow to do more than issue a proclamation or resolution, even as some continue to commemorate the Confederacy.
Lawmakers in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and other states failed to advance proposals this year that would have closed state offices and given most of their public employees paid time off for the June 19 holiday.
In Alabama, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey issued another proclamation marking Juneteenth a state holiday earlier this week after state lawmakers refused to take action on a bill during their legislative session even after she voiced strong support for making it a permanent holiday back in 2021. The state closes down for Confederate Memorial Days in April.
Similarly, Wyoming's Republican Gov. Mark Gordon issued a statement last June saying he would work with lawmakers to make it a state holiday but no legislation was filed during the 2022 session.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee quietly tucked enough funding — roughly $700,000 — to make Juneteenth a state paid holiday in his initial spending plan for the upcoming year.
Despite the bill gaining traction in the state Senate, GOP leaders maintained there wasn’t enough support for the idea even as Tennessee law currently designates special observances for Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.
In South Carolina, instead of working to approve Juneteenth as a holiday, Senate lawmakers unanimously advanced a bill that would allow state employees to choose any day they want to take off instead of the Confederate Memorial Day currently enshrined as a paid holiday in state law. However, the House sent the bill to a committee where it died without a hearing when the Legislature adjourned for the session.
Juneteenth: New federal holiday pressures US companies to give day off
More than 800 companies have publicly pledged to observe Juneteenth, according to HellaCreative, a group of Black creative professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area that launched a campaign last year to build corporate support for making the June 19th an official holiday. That is nearly double the number of companies that had joined the pledge last year.
Patagonia, the outdoor apparel retailer, announced last year that all of its U.S. stores would close, and its corporate offices would be closed. Other brands, including Target, J.C. Penney and Best Buy had pledged last year to adopt Juneteenth as a paid holiday, though they are keeping stores open. Several major banks have said employees will get a floating paid day off.
Major brands like Nike, Lyft, Target, Quicken Loans and the NFL began observing Juneteenth last year. Spotify is among the organizations endorsing the Juneteenth Act, along with the Leadership Conference on Civil Human Rights, NAACP, U.S. Travel Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.