Last year, June 19, AKA Juneteenth, became an official American federal holiday when US President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris. Now that June 19 is an official day of commemoration, it’s important to take a moment to remember what it means (hint: Juneteenth is not about commercialization and corporate profits), and why it’s so important (yes, even in Canada).
What does Juneteenth commemorate?
While Juneteenth had informally been celebrated as Black Independence Day or Jubilee Day over the years, it was not an official federal holiday, with workers receiving the day off, until 2021.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — the emancipation of African-Americans who were enslaved in Galveston, Texas. What’s important to note, however, is that it’s not the actual date when slavery was abolished in the southern state, but rather when African-Americans who were enslaved found out that they were legally free. In fact, then-president Abraham Lincoln had made his Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in Texas and other southern states some two-and-a-half years earlier, in 1862.
Let’s process this for a sec: the news that slavery was no longer legal did not reach those who were most affected by the Proclamation until Union Army general Gordon Granger delivered the message in 1865 (the southern states had notoriously rebelled against the Union, so the enforcement of the law depended on Union troops who were still making their way south).
At the 2021 signing, President Biden said, “Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them.” He urged that the date is not only a way to commemorate the past, but also a call to action for a better future.
Here’s hoping the date also serves as a sobering reminder of how laws can be used to both liberate and oppress, and how enforcement of justice matters as much (if not more) as the laws which proclaim it.
Because June 19 falls on a Sunday in 2022, most US federal employees are getting Monday off to observe the day.