Juneteenth 2021: What is it and how is the holiday celebrated in the US?

18 June 2021, 13:04 | Updated: 18 June 2021, 13:09

Juneteenth 2021: What is it and how is the holiday commemorated in the US?
Juneteenth 2021: What is it and how is the holiday commemorated in the US? Picture: PA

By Emma Clarke

President Joe Biden has officially made Juneteenth a national holiday in the US.

Commemorating the end of slavery in the US, Juneteenth marks the liberation of enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas.

Speaking of the new Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, Biden said: "I've only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honours I will have had as president."

Here, we take a look at the history of the event, and when and how it is marked across the United States.

When is Juneteenth?

Every year, Juneteenth is marked on Saturday, June 19.

What is it?

Months after the American Civil War had ended, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free.

Two years prior, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wasn't enforced in Galveston until June 19, 1865 - the date on which federal soldiers read it out.

The name is a combination of the words "June" and "nineteenth".

How is it marked?

Various celebrations take place across the states, with parades, gatherings and games.

People also mark the occasion with readings, singing, church services and reflection.

Is Juneteenth a national holiday?

On Thursday, June 17, Joe Biden signed a bill into law which means Juneteenth is now an officially recognised holiday in the US.

In his speech, the president spoke about the importance of acknowledging the past, even if it is shameful.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” he said, “Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Vice President Kamala Harris was also in attendance, telling those gathered at the White House press conference: “We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration.”

When he was senator of Illinois, Barack Obama co-sponsored legalisation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but it was never passed.

There have been mixed reactions to the news. Actor D.L. Hughley told TMZ that whilst he embraced the idea of Juneteenth officially being recognised, "Black people asked for justice, and what they got was a holiday."

He likened it to receiving the wrong order, saying although you want to keep it, you still want the original item you purchased.

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City, also stated: “It’s great, but it’s not enough."

She added: “We need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don’t regress any further.

“That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time.”