Juneteenth is marked annually on June 19 (Credit: David Perry/ US Air Force/ Public Domain)

Juneteenth is observed annually on June 19. The federal holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States (US). On this day in 1865, the last enslaved people in America learned they were free.

The history of Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed millions of enslaved people in ten Confederate States that were not under Union control. However, the Union-loyal border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland were exempt from the order. They continued to practice slavery until the 13th Amendment was passed on January 31, 1865.

A reproduction of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation (Credit: National Museum of American History/ Public Domain)

The two laws together made slavery illegal across the nation. But 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, did not know they were free until June 19, 1865. That is when the Union Army arrived and informed them of the president's order. On June 19, 1866, the group marked the first anniversary of their freedom with cookouts, dances, and prayers, starting a new tradition.

Juneteenth celebrations

Over time, Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, was observed in varying degrees across the US. In 1980, Texas became the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. However, its significance remained largely unknown outside the African American community until 2020. In 2021, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania made Juneteenth a holiday for state employees. Major corporations like Nike and Spotify also added it to their list of paid holidays.

Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900, held in Austin (Credit: Austin History Center/ Public Domain)

The steadily growing recognition of Juneteenth was promising. But it was not enough for 97-year-old activist Opal Lee. The Fort Worth, Texas, resident had been trying to make Juneteenth a national holiday since 1989. In 2016, Lee began leading an annual 2.5-mile (4-km) march down Fort Worth's West Lancaster Avenue on June 19. The distance represented the almost two and a half years it took for the slaves in Texas to realize they were free.

Lee's dream finally came true on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It was the first new national holiday in the US since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983. Lee hopes the holiday will help unite Americans.

"Juneteenth is not a Black thing, and it's not a Texas thing," Lee says. "People all over, I don't care what nationality, we all bleed red blood."

Resources: nmaahc.si.edu, NPR.com, Wikipedia.org