Juneteenth: Celebrating Freedom

Cada junio, millones de afroamericanos conmemoran el fin de la esclavitud en Estados Unidos con una celebración que desde 2021 tiene el rango de fiesta nacional.

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Molly Malcolm

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Reformer Booker T. Washington campaigns for African-American education in Lakeland, Tennessee, 1890.

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On June 19, 1865, slaves in Galveston, Texas, received some incredible news: slavery had been abolished. The day quickly became known as ‘Juneteenth’, a mixture of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth’. Slavery had been the principal cause of the American Civil War, fought between the anti-slavery northern states and the pro-slavery southern states, from April 1861 to April 1865. News of the north’s victory had taken two months to reach Galveston! 

First Anniversary

One year later, African-Americans in Galveston celebrated the first anniversary of their freedom with prayer meetings and spirituals, wearing new clothes to represent their new status. The celebrations soon began to spread to other states.

In many southern states, however, there was resistance from white people to black people using public spaces for their celebrations. African-Americans decided to create their own spaces, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, and Booker T. Washington Park in Harrison, Tennessee. 

Southern Racism

Even more significant, the end of slavery did not mean that black and white Americans were treated equally. Southern states began to introduce laws to deny black people equal rights. African-Americans suffered appalling segregation and discrimination for the next eighty years. As millions of black Americans escaped to other parts of the US, however, Juneteenth went with them.

Civil Rights

Then came the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many black protestors linked their struggle to the historical struggles of their ancestors. Student demonstrators wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. The event received a huge boost in 1968, when the Poor People’s March to Washington held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day. People returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations, most famously in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Twelve years later, Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday. 

Celebrations

Juneteenth celebrations vary across the country. There are public readings, singing, picnics and church services, but also rodeos, competitions, concerts and parades. Food is a central element, and barbecues dominate, many with family and friends. 

Recognition

In the last forty years, 28 US states have recognised Juneteenth as a public, paid holiday for state employees. In 2023 companies such as Twitter, Target, Best Buy and Nike also announced that they would treat Juneteenth as a holiday. There is now growing pressure to make ‘America’s second Independence Day’ a national holiday.

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