Editor’s note: On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a law that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Today marks one of the most important moments in U.S. history, and while it isn’t a national holiday (yet) some states and companies are recognizing the historical significance of Juneteenth.
On June 19th, 1865 more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas learned slavery was over. This came two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Spontaneous celebrations broke out as the news spread, and these gave rise to annual events to mark the day.”
This year, as America faces the fact the fact that systemic racism is still in existence and needs to be dismantled and that Black people are killed by police at disproportionate rates and Black mothers and babies are more likely to die during or shortly after birth, many are calling for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday.
Black Lives Matter and Black history matters, too, because it’s not just Black history—it’s American history.
“African Americans were on the front lines of every war, from the Spanish-American War, throughout the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars, Vietnam,” says Gwen Ragsdale, executive director of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia tells NPR. “We have paid our dues with our blood and our toil, so America owes African Americans much more than they are willing to acknowledge.”
Mary Elliott, the curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. tells National Geographic that too often American history paints Black people as passive in the fight to end slavery and that isn’t true. Juneteenth recognizes how Black people fought to free the enslaved, the role of Black people in building the nation afterward and how Black people are still leading change in America today.
“Too often, the story has been that they were fortunate to have non-African Americans writing the legislation to secure their freedom. But it was African Americans who were out there fighting the good fight, and they still are,” says Elliott.
“During the [post-Civil War] Reconstruction period, African Americans were agents for change for their own lives during the nation’s transition,” she tells National Geographic.
Twitter, Nike and JC Penny are among the companies recognizing the holiday internally, giving employees a day on the historic day. Texas was the first to declare Juneteenth a statewide official holiday in 1980, and while 47 states and DC have legislation recognizing it as a holiday or observance, it’s not given the recognition it deserves (and most people are not given the day off work).
That’s changing, slowly, and this week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees. But many say it needs to be more than that. It needs to be celebrated and taught to all American children in the way other historically significant holidays are.
As Opal Lee, a 93-year-old Black woman who has been campaigning for Juneteenth recognition for years, explains: “I just keep thinking that if we were able to work together as a people, white folks, brown folks, black folks, we could accomplish something. I see Juneteenth as the unifier, bringing all folks together.”
Many Black families and communities are coming together today for celebrations, cookouts and parades.
But even if your kids are not Black, your family can and should celebrate Juneteenth today. If you don’t know what to do, start with a story: Read one of the many books the New York Public Library recommends for kids on this day. They’ve curated a list of children’s books specifically for Juneteenth and another great Black liberation reading list full of beautiful and important children’s books. Get creative and have your kids write and decorate the words Black Lives Matter on with sidewalk chalk outside your home.
If you’ve got teens in the house, you can turn to YouTube this evening as Karamu House, the oldest black theater company in the United States, debuts its first streaming theatrical production “Freedom on Juneteenth,” and the aftershow panel discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today’s a day to recognize history and current events and teach our children lessons too many generations of non-Black kids didn’t hear. It’s time for all American families to understand and celebrate Juneteenth.