Juneteenth: A Day to Celebrate Freedom

By Lisa Critchlow

I am excited to share with you the history, traditions, and significance of Juneteenth.  Juneteenth (the blending of “June” and “Nineteenth”) is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it is now celebrated annually on June 19th throughout the country and ironically, yesterday the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill to make the day a federal holiday. The measure needs to pass the House and be signed by President Joe Biden to become law.

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, enacted by President Abraham Lincoln, changed the legal status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in Confederate states from enslaved to free.  Enforcement of the Proclamation generally relied on the advance of Union troops. Texas, as the most remote of the slave states, did not receive word of the freedom of slaves until almost two year later in Galveston on June 19, 1865.  Ratification of the 13th amendment would abolish slavery for all African Americans.

Celebrations date to 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas; however, the celebrations quickly spread throughout the South. Juneteenth grew in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, waned during the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, but was revitalized with a renewed focus in the 1970s. 

The holiday is the “longest-running African-American holiday” and is typically celebrated on the third Saturday in June. In many places, Juneteenth has become a multi-cultural holiday. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing of traditional songs, and reading works by noted African American writers. Celebrations include food festivals, rodeos, parades, cook-outs, family reunions and Miss Juneteenth pageants. 

As native Texans, my family has always commemorated the holiday with a large family reunion with lots of dancing, laughter, food, and love. Ordinally, almost 70 of us make a pilgrimage to Galveston and spend the weekend at the beach This year’s the celebration will be extraordinarily special – in 2020 due to the pandemic we did not celebrate. But this Saturday, I will be hosting the festivities in my home and I cannot wait to see and hug family members who I have not since in over a year.  Happy Juneteenth!