Today, as demonstrators continue to fight for justice for Ahmaud ArberyBreonna TaylorGeorge Floyd, and a growing list of others, the country is getting ready to celebrate the 155th anniversary of a milestone in the liberation of Black people by way of America's other holiday: Juneteenth.

In the wake of those killings, and in the midst of nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, June 19—the date that, in 1865, a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free—has taken on new weight to many. Plans to observe the holiday moved swiftly across corporate America, with businesses ranging from General Motors to Nike to us here at Complex announcing employees would have a paid day off.

Still, while the celebration also known as Freedom Day has deeply embedded roots in Black culture, it appears that Black people can't celebrate without some ignoramus party-crasher trying to spoil the mood.

"I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous," Donald Trump recently said.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, Trump claimed that "nobody had ever heard of" the 155-year-old holiday before a campaign rally scheduled for, yes, June 19 in Tulsa. Trump later pushed the event to June 20. 

While no one is taking any history lessons from that guy, there are people genuinely happy to see this moment when the "Second Independence Day" is front and center in popular culture. There are jubilees happening from state to state, and Channing Godfrey Peoples' Miss Juneteenth is out today. Demonstrators fighting for equality and justice for Black people get an opportunity to celebrate one of America's earliest moments of liberation with this holiday.

Below, we've put together a rundown of the historical and cultural significance of Juneteenth, and we've outlined ways for you to support the effort for it to become a federal holiday as the year goes on.

What is Juneteenth?

A very cool portmanteau of "June" and "nineteenth," Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to inform a group of enslaved people that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were free from the institution of slavery. The Union general issued the order to establish a new relationship between "former masters and slaves" as "employer and hired labor" nearly two and a half years after Lincoln signed the proclamation, yet that didn't mean there wasn't cause for pride.

Still, it would take nearly a century and a half for the history of Juneteenth—and how it represented liberation for enslaved people deep within the clutches of the Confederacy—to be taught in most schools.

Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a CNN column what the date and holiday represent for millions of Black people. "Juneteenth honors America's past racial justice victories even while acknowledging our bitter defeats." 

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

In 1872, a group of Black ministers and businessmen in Houston ramped up the hype for Juneteenth, which was already an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston for men, women, and their descendents, by purchasing 10 acres of land to create Emancipation Park. The space was intended as the setting of the city's Juneteenth celebration. The holiday's prominence grew in cities like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., which hold larger events such as parades and festivals with residents and local businesses. Douglas Matthews, who has helped coordinate the Galveston celebration for more than two decades, said the city has about 15 events—barbecues, a beauty contest, performances, and more—beginning in the first week of June.

Juneteenth gained popularity outside of Texas during the Great Migration, and in 1980 the state became the first to declare Emancipation Day an official holiday. Community gatherings, sporting events, barbecues, prayers, dances, parades, and the singing of spirituals like "Go Down Moses" marked the first types of celebrations. Some of the more adventurous events featured fireworks, which involved filling a group of trees with gunpowder and setting them on fire. Elders would read the Emancipation Proclamation as part of the Juneteenth tradition—something that was especially significant during Reconstruction, when the Southern economy was in rebuilding mode and the holiday reinforced resiliency.

The day took on greater significance in the 1960s and later years through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. "African-Americans wanted to claim their pride and their histories," Dr. Joanne T. Hyppolite, museum curator at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., told the Wall Street Journal. "Juneteenth was one way to do that." While ongoing COVID-19 containment concerns may complicate certain facets of celebration this year, they won't stop Black people from gathering for Spades, good music, a chance to decompress, and fellowship with others.

As for the good eats, red food and drink—as National Juneteenth Observance Foundation president Steve Williams recently pointed out to USA Today—remain a staple for many gatherings marking the holiday.

Why is now the perfect time to make Juneteenth a federal holiday?

Over the past three weeks, nationwide protests (and an international reckoning) in the wake of the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and more have stimulated the most vibrant and widespread political mobilization for racial justice in American history. For that reason alone, a federal move of support for Juneteenth could spark a full-throated conversation about our current racial and political climate, as well as make Juneteenth a paid holiday for many Black American workers.

If national holidays serve as moments to reflect on the sacrifices of others, then the generations of enslaved Black Americans who were key to building this country into a superpower should be celebrated just like Veterans Day or Memorial Day.

juneteenth-explainer-image
Image via Getty


Which states already recognize Juneteenth as a holiday?

North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii—as of 2020—still do not recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday. The remaining 47 states, as well as the District of Columbia, do mark the day, with Montana becoming the most recent to join the list back in 2017. The resolution to make "Juneteenth Independence Day" a national holiday was passed by the U.S. Senate but has not yet been approved in the House.

The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, an organization based in Mississippi, has worked for years to get Juneteenth recognized or observed as a national holiday. In addition to that, a Change.org petition called Make Juneteenth a National Holiday in 2020 was launched by Opel Lee, a 93-year-old Texas woman who wants Congress to designate the day federally, especially in light of recent events in the Black community. At the time of writing, it had 328,165 signatures, and it seeks to collect 500,000. 

"I believe Juneteenth can be a unifier because it recognizes that slaves didn't free themselves and that they had help," Lee wrote. "My goal with this petition ... is to show the Congress and the President that I am not alone in my desire to see national recognition of a day to celebrate 'Freedom for All.'"

How are brands and other figures stepping up for Juneteenth in 2020? 

Earlier this month, Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter and Square had moved to establish Juneteenth as a company-wide holiday.

Nike, meanwhile, has announced that it will recognize Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday. Other companies showing support for Juneteenth celebrations this year by giving employees paid time off include the NFL, Lyft, Vox Media, Spotify, Mastercard, J.C. Penney, and Quicken Loans.

But if you really want to know who is down with the jubilee, Hella Creative, an Oakland-based collective, has a full list of companies that have made it public that they would honor Juneteenth as a national holiday. The collective's #HellaJuneenth campaign was developed to encourage companies and individuals to honor the day by not working.

For employees or executives who would like to invite their companies to join this effort, Hella Creative has created a "Juneteenth Employee Request" form, which gives suggestions on how to best inquire with your employer or manager about instituting the change.

Why is Trump trying to claim Juneteenth?

Everyone should know the answer to that question by now. 45's initial decision to hold a rally on Juneteenth didn't go over well, and national anti-racism protests have forced an unavoidable conversation about equality and social justice. Trump, who is always in campaign mode, hopes that by coming out strongly against the issues like removing Confederate statues and the renaming of military bases, while taking credit for "making Juneteenth very famous," he can make an impression on his supporters at the polls come November.

Trump doesn't seem interested in selling a message of overcoming challenges and unity. Instead, his Tulsa rally on June 20 will be ground zero for ignorance and insensitivity. Add in that, as CNN notes, he has few Black advisers, and his comment to the Wall Street Journal that he polled many people around him, none of whom had heard of Juneteenth, rings extremely empty and hollow. Some critics—including Senator Kamala Harris—saw Trump's original Juneteenth rally as a racist play to "welcome home" white supremacists. "The fact that I'm having a rally on that day—you can really think about that very positively as a celebration," Trump told Fox News. "Because a rally to me is a celebration."

"The stakes are a little different," Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, shared with the New York Times, and we agree. As tensions boil across the country, millions of Black people are actively discussing the state of race and policing in the country, while other activists are outright dreading the next few days. And with Trump only providing lip service in an effort to repeat his win from 2016, Black people don't need a president whose campaign ads call out to racists interrupting a chance to feel seen, be heard, and celebrate one another.

For more on Juneteenth, including how to get involved with the campaign to make it a federal holiday, click here.

Also Watch

Close