Gov. Ralph Northam recently proposed making Juneteenth, a celebration of the liberation of the last American slaves, an official paid state holiday in Virginia. Northam declared that starting this June 19, all executive branch workers will have the day off with pay.
The history of Juneteenth, while well-known in Black communities, has not been celebrated like other American holidays, such as the Fourth of July.
“The history that we teach now is insufficient and inadequate,” Northam said in a press conference this week. “We must remember that Black history is American history.”
Especially the wake of the national protests against racism and police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s death, putting a spotlight on Black historic events is more important than ever. So, if you’re interested in celebrating this upcoming Friday, here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about Juneteenth.
History of Juneteenth
A combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth was first celebrated in the early 1900s and commemorates the day when enslaved Black people were finally liberated in Texas, over two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation had little effect in Texas because there weren’t enough Union soldiers present to enforce the executive order. It was only after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, the Union took over Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital, and Major Gen. Gordon Granger’s troops arrived in Texas that slave owners were forced to free the Black people they enslaved.
It was June 19, 1865, when Gen. Granger and his troops made it to Galveston, Texas. Their first order of business to read General Order #3, which stated:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
The descendents of enslaved Black people from across the country have adopted this holiday as an opportunity to celebrate Black accomplishments and uplift their communities.
“The importance of [Juneteenth] is that it’s kind of rooted in this long history of struggle to get freedom and then the efforts to maintain that freedom in the face of enormous repression that was going to come shortly after,” Columbia University Professor David Rosner told the New York Post.
Could It Become a National Holiday?
On June 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, thanks to the efforts of civil rights activist Al Edwards. Edwards, who died in April at 83 years old, fought to have Juneteenth be observed across the entire United States.
In the absence of a federal holiday, states are slowly making that happen. Shortly after Northam’s announcement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order to recognize June 19 as a paid state holiday.
Several private companies, like Target, Spotify and Lyft, have designated Juneteenth as a paid company holiday. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently said he is cancelling all meetings and will offer a series of “online learning opportunities” for employees throughout the day.