For more than two centuries, Americans have celebrated the country’s independence from Britain at neighborhood cookouts and fireworks displays. For Black Americans, however, the July 4 holiday has been more difficult to navigate. Black people in the U.S. were still enslaved when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in 1776, and the institution of slavery persisted for nearly another 100 years.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — that Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended, thus marking the day many Black Americans recognize as Freedom Day, or Juneteenth.
“July 4th represents a freedom birthday for the country,” Samuel Collins III, a historian and co-chairman of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, told Yahoo News in a video interview. “June 19th, 1865, represents a freedom birthday for the enslaved people.”
Today, more than 150 years later, 48 states and the District of Columbia officially recognize Juneteenth as a statewide holiday. And on Tuesday, the Senate took steps to recognize the holiday nationwide, passing a bill by unanimous consent to establish June 19 as a federal holiday. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives, where its passage is all but assured, then to President Biden's desk for signing. If passed, Juneteenth would become the 11th federal holiday.
The move would establish an official day that many Black Americans have been celebrating on their own since the late 1800s.
In dozens of cities across the country, the date is commemorated through lavish festivals, community-oriented barbecues, educational panels and Black art exhibitions. It’s a time for people to be joyful, gather as friends and family, and reflect on the past and look toward the future.
“We love to eat. We love to sing,” Collins explained. “We love to celebrate and acknowledge our history and the contributions of our ancestors.”
Most recently, the holiday has grown in interest, particularly following nationwide protests against police brutality and the deaths of numerous Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. To combat tragic stories of death, many Black Americans choose to celebrate freedom.
“Parties present powerful opportunities to reaffirm collective values,” Shennette Garrett-Scott, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Mississippi, told Real Simple.
“July 4th doesn’t represent freedom for us,” Emily Anadu, an organizer of the event series the Lay Out in Brooklyn, N.Y., told the Strategist. “We celebrate when we gained our freedom. It’s about reclaiming and holding space for the community.”
In 1979, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth, and the celebrations have steadily grown in size since then. The biggest commemoration in the state can be found in Houston. This year, the city is hosting a historical bike tour, a Black-owned small-business marketplace and multiple virtual and in-person festivals.
Though Black Georgians have been hosting emancipation celebrations for more than a century, the state didn’t officially recognize Juneteenth until 2011. This week, Atlanta will host a three-day mega Juneteenth Parade and Music Festival at Centennial Olympic Park to commemorate the holiday.
Celebrations from Charleston, S.C., to Denver to New York City and D.C. will also mark the day that Black slaves in Texas learned they were free. And while many of these communities have had a long history of educational and cultural activities, workshops and more to commemorate the day, some communities are just getting started.
This year Chatham, Mass., a seaside town with just over 6,000 residents located 90 miles east of Boston, recognized Juneteenth as a holiday for its workers despite the fact that whites make up 90 percent of the population and Black people account for less than 4 percent, according to recent census data. While there are no community-wide events slated for its commemoration, officials felt it was important to acknowledge.
“We did our research and put the recommendation toward the Select Board to recognize the holiday because we wanted to be as inclusive as possible and stand up for what’s right,” Chatham Human Resources Administrator Megan Downey told Yahoo News.
Downey added that she felt white people in the community “absolutely” have a responsibility to understand the day’s history and recognize its importance.
Last July, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker also signed legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday.
Several community members contacted by Yahoo News said they did not know much about the holiday beyond the town’s recognition.
“As far as I know, the only official act has been to give town employees the day off,” Barry Desilets, a Chatham resident, told Yahoo News. “I have not heard of any specific events.”
Another place officially recognizing Juneteenth for the first time is the place where the holiday originated: Galveston. Though the city is no stranger to annual events commemorating the day, marking the date as a citywide holiday is a new step for the community of 50,000 residents whose racial makeup is more than 75 percent white and about 17 percent Black, according to the most recent data.
“Juneteenth is such an important day in our city’s history,” Councilman William Schuster said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “It teaches the lessons of freedom and absolute equality. I am proud to be a part of the City of Galveston in recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday.”
The island city on the Gulf Coast of Texas will observe the holiday with an emancipation processional reenactment, a Juneteenth fair with fireworks, multiple festivals, and a large parade and picnic on June 19.
In addition, a 5,000-square-foot mural commissioned by the city marks the location where the former Union Army headquarters once stood and where Gen. Granger issued the order in 1865 telling slaves they were free.
The mural, according to Houston-based artist Reginald C. Adams, who led a six-person team in its creation, is a mix of “sugar” and “bitter truth.”
“The sugar is the beauty and energy of the mural, while the bitter truth is that for two and a half years, people were held in slavery against a federal declaration,” Adams told the New York Times last month.
“I’m glad that everyone is finally catching up to embracing the day,” Collins, the historian, who was born and raised in Galveston, said. “Now that it’s become a little more commercialized ... I want people to remember that even with this mural ... see behind the painting plaster or the bricks that make my heart ache.
“See that these bricks are the bricks that were laid by the hands of enslaved people, and the fingerprints of those individuals are not only in the physical bricks, but symbolically in the fingerprints of the performance all throughout our society,” he added. “They laid the bricks for this economic prosperity that we enjoy today in America.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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