Sam Roberts and his family are planning June 16th, the latest US holiday to commemorate the emancipation of black enslaved people in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
On Sunday, the Roberts family and other Americans will participate in celebrations and memorial services. It’s part of a growing national recognition of a pivotal moment in US history that has been part of black culture for generations.
“June 16 is our Freedom Day, and the African American community has long celebrated June 19,” said Roberts, a father of two from Washington, DC, who signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law last year.
“While July 4th is the celebration of liberty for the United States, June 16 is a celebration of liberty for post-Civil War African Americans,” said Jesse Holland, an author and black historian.
The push for a federal holiday on June 16 comes amid the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement and a year after nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. It followed the 2020 killing of African American man George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Since then, the annual celebration has taken on new meaning for some in the black community.
“June is a reminder to black Americans that we still face the challenges of hate and discrimination that our ancestors endured,” Roberts said. “We must redouble our pursuit of equality.”
Some historians believe that greater awareness of June 16 will lead to forward-leaning conversations among Americans about race relations and the legacy of slavery.
A national opinion poll suggests that most Americans believe blacks are impacted by the history of slavery today and that the federal government has a responsibility to address those impacts, according to the Gallup Center on Black Voices poll.
Additionally, the poll found that Americans who believe government is responsible generally believe that all Black Americans, and not just those of slave descent, should benefit from programs to address the effects of slavery.
“Not all African Americans in the United States are descendants of slaves, but for the vast majority of us who are, June 16 is the time for us to take stock of who we are today, where we come from, and who we are Sacrifices our ancestors made before and since the Civil War,” Holland told VOA.
declarations of freedom
US President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, a post-Civil War declaration that legally freed more than three million black slaves in the Confederate States. But not all slaves were free because the proclamation could not be implemented in parts of the southern United States.
To enforce the proclamation, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to issue General Order Number 3, ending black enslavement in Texas. The Mandate freed an estimated 250,000 slaves two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
“White Texans knew it was the Civil War [over] and slavery was outlawed, but they didn’t tell their slaves for years that the war was over [in order] to continue extracting free labor from them,” Holland said. “In June, the lie ended and federal forces emerged to enforce the new federal law stating slavery is illegal in the United States.”
While June 16 is hailed as the end of slavery, the practice of involuntary servitude continued for a short time in the states of Delaware and Kentucky. On December 6, 1865, slavery was abolished in the United States with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
June 16 Consciousness
The first events to commemorate June 16 date back to 1866 when former slaves celebrated their new freedom with prayers, feasts, songs and dances. The anniversary experienced a decline in popularity in the 1950s and ’60s as black Americans focused on the civil rights movement and ending racial discrimination. June 16 saw a resurgence in the 1980s when Texas became the first state to declare the date a public holiday. Other communities in the US slowly began to adopt the annual observance as a holiday.
Much of the success in rallying support for a national holiday is credited to African-American activist Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of June 16.” As a child, Lee witnessed a group of 500 white supremacists vandalize and burn down her family’s home. The life changing moment led her to a life of teaching and activism.
In 2016, at age 89, she started a hiking campaign, traveling hundreds of miles from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC to push for a June 16 federal holiday. At 95, Lee is delighted that Juneteenth is garnering national attention. She will march again on Sunday to celebrate the holiday.
“It’s important that people recognize Juneteenth,” Lee said in an interview with D Magazine last month. “It’s not a black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, it’s about freedom for all.”
Today’s June 16 celebrations often include music festivals, parades or a march. Observations also focus on lessons about African American heritage, political participation, and economic empowerment.
“On the 19th we gather for barbecues, dancing and sharing stories of the black experience,” Roberts told VOA. His family has been a part of the June 16 celebrations for decades. “This year we have two event days on Sunday and Monday, the day on which the federal holiday falls,” he said. The holiday has become a summertime ritual for the Roberts and one of the few holidays they keep.
Utah will mark June 16 as a state holiday for the first time after lawmakers approved a bill earlier this year. “I am very pleased that we as a state are embracing this holiday,” said Sandra Hollins, Utah state legislator. “It means a lot to me. It means my culture matters and that we can celebrate a holiday that has been overlooked in this state.” Several celebrations are taking place in the capital, Salt Lake City.
Almost all 50 US states and the District of Columbia now celebrate June 16th. Historian Holland believes this is a clear sign of national recognition and acceptance.
“June 16 is American history and everyone should be able to celebrate it, including people of all races, colors and creeds.”