How did Juneteenth get its name? The story behind the holiday's title

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June 19 marks the third consecutive year of Juneteenth as a federally recognized United States holiday. Also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day or America's second Independence Day, Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. after the Civil War.

Many Americans have celebrated it annually for more than a century, even though the holiday was not officially added to the national calendar until 2021. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed power across the country and abroad the previous year with the police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, public calls grew louder for the federal government to acknowledge emancipation as the critical turning point it was in U.S. history. Advocates sought, again, for leaders to codify the Juneteenth holiday into law, decades after communities began to push for broader recognition of Juneteenth as an emblem of unity, power and resilience in the wake of the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

Federal recognition came in 2021. A bill to solidify Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday passed almost unanimously through both chambers of Congress before being signed by President Biden on June 18. At a White House ceremony held for the occasion, Mr. Biden said: "All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history." It was the first time a national holiday was established in the U.S. since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was set to honor the late civil rights leader's birthday in 1983.

Juneteenth became a legal federal holiday in the U.S. on the eve of its earliest nationwide observance on June 19, 2021. It is observed and celebrated each year on that same date.

The origins of Juneteenth

The name, Juneteenth, is a portmanteau, combining June and nineteenth. Its origins date back to June 19, 1865, when the last group of people enslaved in the southern U.S. were informed of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, declaring that everyone held as a slave was, and would continue to be, free.

The proclamation took effect as the country neared its second year of the Civil War and technically applied to enslaved people in Confederate states. However, it could not actually be implemented in Confederate territory, and the war would not end in victory for the Union Army until much later, in the spring of 1865. In Texas, the westernmost state controlled by the Confederacy, news of freedom and the tenets of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived that summer. On June 19, thousands of Union soldiers reached Galveston Bay, along the northeastern coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, and announced that all enslaved people in the state were freed by executive order.

People carry a Juneteenth flag as they march during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021. / Credit: MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images
People carry a Juneteenth flag as they march during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021. / Credit: MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

At the time, more than 250,000 Black people were being held as slaves in Texas alone, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which writes in a description of the holiday that the "historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times." Once the Emancipation Proclamation laid its roots in Texas, those freed from slavery declared the day of its arrival "Juneteenth" in homage to the date when it finally happened.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage, critically, for an end to slavery throughout the U.S., it was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that actually did it. The amendment's passage through Congress and across Lincoln's desk began in January 1865. It was ratified in December of that year, abolishing slavery nationwide.

How to celebrate Juneteenth

Observing Juneteenth each year on June 19 does memorialize that specific day in Galveston in 1865, but it is also symbolic. Many regard the holiday as a joyful anniversary of independence and an opportunity to remember the country's foundation on centuries of slavery.

Historically, communities in different parts of the U.S. have celebrated Emancipation Day on different dates, a tradition that nodded to the fact that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached people enslaved by the Confederacy at different times after the Civil War. In Florida, for example, advocates in 2021 pushed for the state to recognize and observe Emancipation Day on May 20, because that was the date in 1865 when news of Lincoln's executive decree reached enslaved people there. Washington, D.C., has in the past observed a city-wide Emancipation Day on April 16.

Juneteenth celebrations vary. Public festivities often include parades, parties, concerts, educational workshops and other cultural events centered on art and cuisine. For some, commemorating Juneteenth is mainly about tapping into the spirit of the holiday. Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University who celebrated Juneteenth growing up in a small town outside of Houston, told CBS News in 2021 that, for her, the day revolved around family and "creating community and connection."

Opal Lee, the retired teacher and counselor whose activism played a huge role in Juneteenth becoming a federally recognized holiday, recalled joyful memories of the annual celebrations in the Texas town where she lived as a child.

"When I was a little one and we lived in Marshall, Texas, we'd go to the fairground," she said in a CBS News interview in 2022. "There'd be games and food and food and food. I'm here to tell ya it was like Christmas!"

Lee, now 97, became known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth" for her famous trek from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to ultimately deliver 1.5 million signatures to Congress advocating for a law to make the date a federal holiday. She shared her thoughts on the essence of Juneteenth in that 2022 interview.

"People think it's a Black thing when it's not. It's not a Texas thing. It's not that," Lee said. "Juneteenth means freedom, and I mean for everybody!"

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