By Ciji Carr, Learning and Development Supervisor – Curriculum at the New Jersey Child Support Institute, part of Rutgers School of Social Work’s Institute for Families.

Juneteenth is one of the most culturally important days in American history, and there are many of us who are just learning the historical significance of this day. The origins of Juneteenth have increasingly been recognized and celebrated nationally, so how did Juneteenth come about, and why are we celebrating it now? To understand the why, it is important to understand its history and how this day became such an important day of celebration for Black Americans and others.

The History
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade led to over 12.5 million African men, women, and children being forcibly removed from their homes and transported by ship to North America, South America, and the Caribbean (Harris, 2023). Those that survived the trip were enslaved, sold as property, forced to perform free labor, and endured years of extreme brutality.  

Slave trading served as the largest, most profitable industry between the 1500s and 1860s (Harris, 2023). In the United States, during the latter years, the institution of slavery became a point of conflict between the northern states and the southern states. The north began passing laws to free slaves, while the southern states fought to preserve slavery. 

During this time, the southern states (also known as the Confederacy) seceded from the northern states (also known as the Union) and began operating as its own country with a separate government, president, and constitution that preserved the rights of slaveholders. This led to the American Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all enslaved people shall be freed. Due to the separation of government, the Confederacy refused to enforce the order or notify the slaves of their freedom. Those enslaved in the Confederate states were not immediately freed by the proclamation. 

Throughout the war, many slaveholders traveled to Texas where slavery continued to operate with little to no impact. In 1865, over two years after the signing of Emancipation Proclamation, soldiers from the northern states traveled down south in an effort to fully enforce the order. 

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Grander arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War and declare the end of slavery. This day, known as Juneteenth and recognized as “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” is a commemoration of June 19, the historical day that all slaves were notified of their emancipation and freed from their slaveholders.

Symbols of Celebration
As we observe Juneteenth, there are two flags commonly shared as a symbol of celebration. The Black Liberation flag (created in 1920) includes the following colors: red to represent blood and sacrifice, black to represent the strength of the Black community, and green to represent the richness of the African land. This flag serves as a symbol of freedom, pride, and power of Black Americans. 
The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 and revised in 2000. This flag intentionally shares the same red, white, and blue colors as the United States flag. The flag also includes a bursting star which indicates the end of slavery (as announced in Texas) and a new beginning for African Americans.

Today’s Celebrations
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill officially observing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This has led to the many celebrations that we see across the nation today. 
There are several ways to celebrate Juneteenth as a direct descendent and ally to the community. Many local communities host Juneteenth festival celebrations, which allow you to explore the food, literature, music, and art of the culture. There are also opportunities to patronize local Black-owned businesses to reinforce your support for the community. 

Most importantly, I encourage you to explore and acknowledge the history and understand the significance of why we celebrate this day. Juneteenth is more than a day out of the office. For an entire community of people that shed blood and were forced into centuries of bondage, this day represents the beginning of a new day. 

Happy Juneteenth!

Harris, J. (2023). 9 Facts About the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Retrieved on June 18, 2024.