What Is Juneteenth? Observance Arrives Amid U.S. Reckoning With Racism

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People take pictures as they see crew members work to remove the the 30-foot Confederate monument which is been brought down on late June 18, 2020, in Decatur northeast of Atlanta, Georgia
People take pictures as they see crew members work to remove the the 30-foot Confederate monument which is been brought down on late June 18, 2020, in Decatur northeast of Atlanta, GeorgiaCredit: Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP

Juneteenth, an annual U.S. holiday on June 19, has taken on greater significance this year following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other African Americans.

WHAT IS JUNETEENTH? Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and 19th, also is known as Emancipation Day. It commemorates the day in 1865, after the Confederate states surrendered to end the Civil War, when a Union general arrived in Texas to inform a group of enslaved African Americans of their freedom under President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In 1980, Texas officially declared it a holiday. It is now recognized in 46 other states and the District of Columbia, with only Hawaii, North and South Dakota remaining. Rules regarding holidays and days of observance vary from state to state, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which is campaigning for Juneteenth to reach federal holiday status. Although in part a celebration, the day is also observed solemnly to honor those who suffered during slavery in the United States with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans over 400 years ago.

WHAT IS SIGNIFICANT THIS YEAR? Juneteenth coincides this year with global protests against racial injustice sparked by the May 25 death of Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody. It also accompanies the coronavirus outbreak, which has disproportionately affected communities of color. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump, who had already been under fire for his response to both crises, drew further criticism for scheduling a Friday re-election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has since moved it to Saturday. Tulsa is an important and especially sensitive site where a white mob massacred African American residents in 1921. Community organizations nationwide will devote the day to discussions on policing and civil rights ahead of the November election.

HOW ARE PEOPLE MARKING THE DAY? People will mark the 155th anniversary across the country with festive meals and gatherings. While many cities have canceled this year's annual parades because of the pandemic, other groups have opted for virtual conferences or smaller events. In Washington, groups plan marches, protests and rallies. Amid the wave of racial justice protests, New York's governor on Wednesday signed an executive order to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday for state employees. Some U.S. businesses have committed to a change of policies, including recognition of the holiday. Among the companies that have announced they will recognize Juneteenth as a paid company holiday are the National Football League, the New York Times, Twitter and Square. 

U.S. reckoning with racism

Many Juneteenth observances celebrating the emancipation of African American slaves more than a century and a half ago were shifted to the internet on Friday due to the coronavirus, though street marches and "car caravans" were planned in several major U.S. cities.

Organizers said the occasion holds particular significance this year - despite limitations imposed by the pandemic - as it comes amid a reckoning with America's troubled racial history following last month's death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Weeks of mounting demands to end police brutality and racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system are sure to animate rallies expected in cities coast to coast, including New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In Texas, where Juneteenth originated, Lucy Bremond oversees what is believed to be the oldest public celebration of the occasion each year in Houston's Emancipation Park, located in the Third Ward area where Floyd spent most of his life.

This year a gathering that typically draws some 6,000 people to the park, purchased by freed slaves in 1872 to hold a Juneteenth celebration, will be replaced with a virtual observance.

"There are a lot of people who did not even know Juneteenth existed until these past few weeks," Bremond said.

Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates the U.S. abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, belatedly announced by a Union army in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

Texas officially made it a holiday in 1980, and 45 more states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. This year, a number of a major companies declared June 19, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, a paid holiday for employees.

Union dockworkers at nearly 30 ports along the West Coast planned to mark the occasion by staging a one-day strike.

But much of the focus of the 155th annual observance will take place on social media, with online lectures, discussion groups and virtual breakfasts, to help safeguard minority communities especially hard hit by the pandemic.

"We have been training our staff on how to use technology to present their events virtually and online," said Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

Many chapters have also planned "car caravans" - slow-speed processions of motorists honking horns and waving their arms as they wend their way through neighborhoods, Williams said.

One possible focal point of Juneteenth observances this year will be Tulsa, Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump's first campaign rally in three months was originally scheduled for Friday but was moved to Saturday after a storm of opposition.

Critics said staging the rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the scene of a notorious massacre of African Americans by white mobs in 1921, showed a profound lack of sensitivity to the city's history, not to mention disregard for public health concerns. Local media reported Juneteenth organizers were planning an outdoor event expected to draw tens of thousands on Friday.

Byron Miller, Juneteenth commissioner for San Antonio, Texas, said he has long felt compelled to make the celebration "palatable" to white people by emphasizing advances in racial harmony, rather than dwelling on centuries of abuses endured by African Americans.

But Floyd's death has left him newly embittered.

"The times we're living now have forced many of us to acknowledge that maybe slavery has never ended, in some fashion or another," he said.

Bremond saw the potential for the holiday as a balm for racial wounds, saying, "I'm hopeful that Juneteenth will serve as a stabilizing influence for the chaos that we've been seeing in the streets."

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