| 11.4°C Belfast

Celebrating Juneteenth, the day the last enslaved people were freed in the US

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South in 1863, it was not enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War.

Close

The Juneteenth flag flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The Juneteenth flag commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S. will fly over the Wisconsin Capitol for the first time in state’s history, Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The Juneteenth flag flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The Juneteenth flag commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S. will fly over the Wisconsin Capitol for the first time in state’s history, Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The Juneteenth flag flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The Juneteenth flag commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S. will fly over the Wisconsin Capitol for the first time in state’s history, Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

People across the US and beyond are celebrating a key national day which has a much higher profile this year amid widespread anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Juneteenth – celebrated each year on June 19 – marks the day in 1865 when slavery was abolished in Texas – two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now, with support growing for the racial justice movement, 2020 may be remembered as the year the holiday reached a new level of recognition.

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South in 1863, it was not enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War two years later.

Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word did not reach the last enslaved black people until June 19, when Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and that the state’s 250,000 slave were officially free.

Close

A mural of George Floyd in Houston (David J Phillip/AP)

A mural of George Floyd in Houston (David J Phillip/AP)

AP/PA Images

A mural of George Floyd in Houston (David J Phillip/AP)

Celebrations have typically included parades, barbecues, concerts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, but after massive demonstrations over Mr Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, there has been a seismic shift to further elevate black voices, with states and cities moving to make Juneteenth an official paid holiday.

Here is a look at the holiday and its history:

BEGINNINGS

When Union troops arrived in Galveston on June 19 1865, Maj Gen Granger delivered General Order No 3, which said: “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

The next year, former slaves started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston, and it eventually reached other states.

Early celebrations were mostly cookouts or barbecues, said Robert Widell Jr, a professor of African American history at the University of Rhode Island and author of “Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle”. They were typically large, joyous gatherings as former enslaved people prioritised trying to reunite with family.

“It seems fitting that this celebration to commemorate emancipation and commemorate freedom would have that element of a family reunion,” Mr Widell said.

WHAT DOES JUNETEENTH MEAN?

The term is a blend of the words June and 19th. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day.

Cliff Robinson, who runs the Juneteenth.com website that tracks annual celebrations, said there will be some kind of event in nearly every major US city but because of the coronavirus pandemic, many will be virtual.

AN OFFICIAL HOLIDAY

Juneteenth celebrations eventually stretched beyond Texas, which was the first state to make it a holiday in 1980, as black people continued the tradition after moving out of state or overseas.

Most states and the District of Columbia recognise Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of recognition. Countries like South Korea, Ghana, Israel, Taiwan, France and the US territory of Guam have also held Juneteenth celebrations.

In Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy, governor Ralph Northam moved to make Juneteenth an official holiday, giving executive branch employees a paid day off on Friday and proposing legislation to make it a permanent state holiday.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo similarly designated Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees and vowed to push legislation next year making it a permanent holiday.

Philadelphia also made Juneteenth a holiday, while Portland in Oregon and Chicago are considering similar action.

Companies like Nike and Target also took the step.

NEW URGENCY

Mr Robinson, who created Juneteenth.com in 1996, thought it would be useful to have an online hub where people could share details about events or ask advice about staging their own. He also began building a network of local leaders and academics who could give talks on the holiday.

He has received a noticeable increase in calls and emails asking about the history of Juneteenth and ways to honour it. Many inquiries have come from small businesses that are not black-owned and want a speaker for a virtual celebration.

“The requests we’ve gotten is for folks who want to know more about the history, who want someone to tap into a video session and give some background on what it means this year as opposed to years past,” Mr Robinson said.

Juneteenth is a time of reflection and for black people to take pride in what they and their ancestors have overcome, he said, but this year’s celebrations will “without a doubt” be different.

Typically, there would be parades and concerts around the country, but the Covid-19 pandemic means most events will either be scaled-down, socially distanced versions or completely digital.

Other groups plan to hold peaceful protests, voter registration drives or black-owned business crawls.

PA