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What is Juneteenth and how do you celebrate the federal holiday?

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Juneteenth celebrations this year will include a victory lap for advocates who have fought long and hard for national recognition of America’s second day of freedom. 

Just days before its 156th anniversary, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth, which marks the true end of slavery, an official federal holiday.

On July Fourth, the nation will celebrate its independence that began in 1776. Across the country, Americans, many with no ancestral connection to early colonists, will watch firework displays, march in parades, and proudly wear red, white, and blue star-spangled outfits. 

As current Americans, we share pride in our country’s history and emulate the joy and sense of freedom felt by early colonists. But, on that jubilant day, enslaved Black people could not celebrate freedom. Slavery didn’t officially end until the signing of The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. And in Texas, it didn’t end until the announcement reached Galveston on June 19, 1865.  

Black people in Texas were bound to plantations and lived for 900 more days as slaves compared to those who got the news on time. For many, “Juneteenth” signifies the true emancipation day from slavery. It is also called “Freedom Day” — the day all slaves were granted their freedom. It was a day for celebration. 

On the heels of the federal government’s historic recognition, there are four things you should know about this important day in American history.

1. It’s a new federal holiday, but was recognized in 49 states before that.

Prior to this week’s federal recognition, which means federal employees get a paid day off, D.C. and every state but one already commemorated Juneteenth in some way. Although, not all of those states gave a paid day off. The paid federal holiday could encourage more private employers — and states — to follow suit.

At least seven states observe Juneteenth, which has , as a paid holiday, with some like Massachusetts and Illinois deciding to do so just this year, although the day off won’t take effect until next year in Illinois. Only South Dakota doesn’t recognize Juneteenth on the state level. Juneteenth has been a paid state holiday in Texas since 1980.

In 2020, corporations like Best Buy, Nike, and Target took the lead in making Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employees, and a growing are following their lead. The governmental and corporate change came after a police violence against Black people.

The gained momentum as many more people agreed that Juneteenth deserved its proper place in American history. Ninety-four-year-old Juneteenth activist, Opal Lee from Houston, Texas has been one of the strongest voices to push the measure forward. Lee walked 2.5 miles in a variety of states — to symbolize the more than two and a half years it took for news of emancipation to reach Galveston — over about four months, starting in Fort Worth, Texas and ending in Washington, D.C. in January 2017 to encourage lawmakers to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She also netted 1.6 million signatures on a Change.org petition to move the needle. Other   advocate groups formed for the same purpose. This includes the Juneteenth Foundation, which aims “to celebrate the excellence of Black culture and freedom.” It is hosting a on June 18 and 19, and plans to give scholarships to students at historically Black colleges and universities.

It to establish as the eleventh federal holiday and close to another 15 years for all states to embrace it, so many were concerned gaining a twelfth federal holiday would take some time. The journey to make Juneteenth an official national holiday has come to an end, but for some, the designation is long overdue.

2. It’s the longest running emancipation celebration for African Americans.

Juneteenth was created by former slaves and passed down to each new generation. In 1872, to create a designated area for Juneteenth celebrations. Called Emancipation Park, Black people gathered there to commemorate Freedom Day as the segregated city prevented them from using public parks

Through migration, people began to celebrate the holiday in many states outside of Texas. On June 19, Black communities celebrate with many of the same traditions as those marking the Fourth of July.

Candice Foster, a 34-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, says at least three generations in her family have celebrated Juneteenth. “My neighborhood gets together and we have block parties, parades, and we have a Black history museum that we visit,” says the insurance specialist.

“Juneteenth is like a Black family reunion.”

Melorra Green, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, works to support San Francisco’s annual celebration in her role aMLs the co-executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex. She says the holiday reminds her of family. 

“Juneteenth is like a Black family reunion. I remember in Memphis it was the one time you could see multiple families come together to play, laugh, and, sometimes, cry,” she says. 

3. Food is a big part of the celebration.

Families gather on Juneteenth to celebrate with parades and block parties, but also with food. For Juneteenth celebrations, Black people revisit their stories of resilience during barbecues featuring red food and drinks, which represent perseverance. 

This includes red hot link sausages, watermelon, red velvet cake, and red-tinted hibiscus tea. Some also believe that red is associated with that traveled with slaves across the Atlantic Ocean.   

4. It took 155 years and a social justice movement to gain national attention. 

Sadly, many people in the country had never heard of Juneteenth until last year. In the midst of a pandemic and the fights for racial justice after the murder of , the Juneteenth celebration of 2020 gained national attention. 

“We should acknowledge Juneteenth as American history, not just Black history.”

Although it was celebrated in the South and throughout the Midwest continuously, Freedom Day went mostly unrecognized nationally until former President Trump was harshly criticized for , Oklahoma, where an entire Black town was wiped out by a in 1921. These series of events encouraged more people to learn about the history of slavery and its on the lives of all Americans. 

“We should acknowledge Juneteenth as American history, not just Black history,” says Cammie Jones, executive director of community engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion at Barnard College. But, the Texas native goes on to say that recognizing the day is not enough. 

“The holiday has become a point in the year where people are acknowledging in some capacity what has happened in our country. But, I hope it doesn’t stop or start on Juneteenth. It should continue. We should continue to figure out what liberation can look like. It shouldn’t stop or start at this day,” she says. 

What can we still learn from Juneteenth?

Jones also suggests using Juneteenth as a starting point to learn more about , and how you can play a role in ending it. 

“Slavery is over and you may not still see people picking cotton in a field, but there are definitely forms of systemic oppression that are still around to this day in our society, and it is up to each of us to look into our communities. We need to do research and ask: What are forms of systemic racism? How can I be an ally, and not to take up space, but to provide resources and opportunities,” she encourages. 

The emergence of Juneteenth into the national conversation allows us to learn more about a tradition that has come out of struggle. We can better understand ourselves in the context of history, and we can share in the joy of other Americans and honor their traditions. 

Similar to July Fourth, many Black people view Juneteenth as their Independence Day. There may not always be fireworks on June 19, but there will be a celebration. 

Yolande Clark-Jackson is a writer and educator based in South Florida. You can follow her on Twitter @YClarkjackson and find more of her work at yolandeclarkjackson.com.

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