Every American knows we celebrate freedom on the Fourth of July, but very few people know what Juneteenth celebrates, or even recognize the date. A Harris Poll conducted last June found 22% of Americans said they were "very aware" of the date, while 33% said they were "not at all aware."
On Saturday, June 19, people from all walks of life will mark Juneteenth. Short for "June nineteenth," the holiday commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. It was first celebrated in Texas on June 19, 1866, exactly one year after Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and declared that enslaved people had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation that became effective in 1863.
UC Merced Professor Kevin Dawson, chair of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Group, teaches classes on African American history, African diaspora, gender, race and slavery in the U.S. and Atlantic world. He explained that Juneteenth initially stayed within Texas for some time, and it wasn't until about the 1980s and '90s – more than 100 years later – that the holiday became much more widely celebrated across the country.
On June 17, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday after both the House and Senate had passed the resolution earlier in the week. This is now the 12th federal holiday and the first new one since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established in 1983.
"I think it's important to commemorate Juneteenth because it forces us to think about these issues of freedom and race in America and who was actually free," said Dawson. "It's not a rejection of America. I think we should recognize the inequalities and injustices as part of the healing process.
"It's important to say that no we were not created as equal," he added. "This is something that we're striving for; that we're imperfect. But out of that imperfection, hopefully, we can create a society that truly embraces freedom, liberty, democracy and equality for all people."
Because it took time for Juneteenth to spread to other states, some people may only be somewhat familiar with it. However, Dawson said there might also be a willful neglect.
"In order to celebrate Juneteenth, you have to recognize slavery," he said. "It's a celebration of freedom – exactly what we say we are; a freedom-loving country – but it's not the kind of freedom that we want to celebrate. We want to celebrate freedom from English tyranny or religious oppression, but we don't want to celebrate the freedom of our own tyranny."
As decades have passed, the meaning of Juneteenth has evolved, especially recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. In the past year, people have taken to the streets and social media to express their frustration with racial and social inequalities. Dawson stresses that the movement is not anti-anything, but instead is a recognition of Black freedom and what that can mean in the U.S.
After former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, the meaning of Juneteenth could be experiencing a transition again.
"I think what it might mean now, at least for African Americans, it might be more hopeful than in the past," said Dawson. "I think with how police violence and racial injustice are being taken more seriously and not just dismissed, that it is more hopeful. It's becoming more of a celebration of freedom and for hope for the future than for commemorating an end to slavery."
Dawson hopes that freedom will not be curtailed when it comes to expressing thoughts and making decisions, including voting in future elections. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, states have passed more than 20 laws this year that will make it "harder for Americans to vote." Other bills now making their way through multiple state legislatures include changes to mail-in voting and imposing voter ID requirements, among other changes many see as restricting people's ability to vote.