This year marks the second anniversary since President Joe Biden named Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021.

As more Americans celebrate Juneteenth with family and community, it is vital to share the important historical legacy behind Juneteenth and recognize the long struggle to make it an officially recognized holiday. It is an opportunity to honor our country’s second Independence Day and reflect on our shared history and future. 

The origins of Juneteenth date to June 1865. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and the Confederate army surrendered to the Union army in April 1865, enslaved people in Texas — the westernmost Confederate state — could not exercise their freedom until June 19, 1865. On that date, Union General Gordon Granger led some 2,000 Union troops, many of whom were Black, into Galveston Bay, where they announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” deriving its name from combining “June” and “nineteenth.” 

Photo of a group of people having a picnic

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people having a picnic, Monroe Indiana, c. 1920.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture , Gift of Jennifer Cain Bohrnsted

Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, and even sue slaveholders for compensation.

Despite more than 200 years of enslavement, they demonstrated extraordinary courage and resilience as they transformed both their lives and their country. Supporting this transition from slavery to freedom was the Freedmen’s Bureau (formally the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), which Congress had established on March 3, 1865, just three months before Juneteenth. The Bureau provided people with food, clothing, medical care, and legal representation; promoted education; helped legalize marriages; and assisted African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, enlistment bounties, and pensions.

The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 abolished slavery and ushered in major changes in the United States. However, people born into slavery were not granted citizenship, including the right to own property, until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, and African American men did not receive the right to vote until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The ability of formerly enslaved people to secure true freedom remained elusive, even as celebrations of Juneteenth began to develop. 

Initially, Juneteenth was celebrated in family- and church-centered gatherings. Over time, the informal holiday evolved into annual pilgrimages to Galveston Bay by formerly enslaved individuals and their families. The celebrations spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on food festivals.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people having a picnic, Monroe Indiana, c. 1920.

Georgia • USA, by Leonard Freed, 1964. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Brigitte Freed in memory of Leonard Freed, © Leonard Freed/Magnum.

Over the decades, many advocated the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday. Perhaps no two people promoted the commemoration more vigorously than activist and founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr., M.D. (1956–2018), and 96-year-old Texan and community leader Opal Lee, whom many consider the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” 

Dr. Myers worked tirelessly to bolster the national movement to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday. Friends and family recall that Dr. Myers travelled to Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years, lobbying lawmakers to insist they recognize Juneteenth on both state and national levels. Even though Dr. Myers passed away in 2018, his organizing on the state level proved invaluable to the process of establishing a national observance of Juneteenth.  

The Grandmother of Juneteenth, Opal Lee, also was a driving force in this movement. Lee knew the country needed—and wanted—the unity that a national celebration of the abolition of slavery would bring. So, in 2016, at the age of 89, she began a walk from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to this important cause.  

Lee trekked two and a half miles each morning and afternoon, a representation of the two and a half years Black Texans remained enslaved after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It didn’t take long for word to spread and soon countless others joined Lee on her march. The 1,400-mile walk concluded with a press conference that put Juneteenth on the nation’s radar. Lee continued to walk two and a half miles each Juneteenth to collect signatures and gather support nationwide for national recognition of Juneteenth. 

A black-and-white digital image of the Taylor Family outside on Martha Vineyard, 1950s. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

And yet, June 19 remained an unrecognized federal holiday.  

In 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of police sparked a new social justice movement and renewed national interest in racial equity. Amid this wave of social and political activism, Lee held her annual walk, and the signatures on her petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday totaled over 1.5 million. The next year, in 2021, President Biden finally designated June 19 as a federal holiday. Juneteenth was no longer a whisper in history. 

The first national recognition of Juneteenth sparked an outpouring of joy and unity across this country. From coast to coast, Americans of all backgrounds enjoyed parties, attended soulful concerts, and shared communal feasts in a triumphant reminder of the rich tapestry of African American culture we celebrate today. 

Outdoor Portrait of a Family Standing by a Picnic Table, Photograph by Rev. Henry Clay Anderson, 1950s - 1960s.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Juneteenth has always been more than a holiday. The day stands as a testament to and celebration of the unyielding spirit of a people. It is a day for introspection, a platform for education, and a tribute to the monumental contributions of African Americans to the history of this nation. Each year, as Juneteenth grows in popularity, there are festivals, parades, activist rallies, commemorative murals, vitally important discussions about race, and so much more. By celebrating Juneteenth, we foster connections, healing, and revitalization. And we pay tribute to the ongoing fight for social justice and racial equity. 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a vibrant community where the hope and resilience inspired by Juneteenth lives on—a space where historical events like Juneteenth are shared. A space where history is made and new stories are told. 

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