What is Juneteenth and why should I care about it?

While Juneteenth is a United States holiday, it has relevance worldwide.

On January 1, 1863, during the bloodshed of the American Civil War, US President Abraham Lincoln announced Proclamation 95, more commonly known as the Emancipation Proclamation. The new law changed the legal status of millions of African Americans from enslaved to free.

Read the latest print edition of School News HERE

However, emancipation came at different times across the country: many of the newly freed slaves were still living in Confederate-controlled areas, where the new laws were impossible to enforce. Additionally, the Proclamation did not include half a million slaves in border states such as Missouri and Kentucky, which were not actively rebelling against the US Army.

Two and a half years after the Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, a group of African-American slaves in Galveston, in the southernmost part of Texas, were liberated and informed of their newfound freedom.

156 years later, US President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Juneteenth an official national holiday.

The history of Juneteenth

Although it was only recently officially recognised as a federal holiday, generations of Americans have been commemorating and celebrating jubilees of emancipation since the late 1860s.  

In Galveston, the first Jubilee Day celebration took place on June 19, 1866. The following year, celebrations took place in Austin, Texas. By the end of the century, jubilee celebrations were attracting tens of thousands of people and were being called Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and nineteenth.

An article in The New York Times says that early celebrations consisted of prayer and family gatherings, while some groups took pilgrimages to Galveston. Later, celebrations incorporated city-wide festivals, parades and banquets.

As people began migrating around the States, the Juneteenth celebrations were taken to other cities in the north and on the east and west coasts.

Various states began proclaiming state holidays as early as the 1980s, while the World Economic Forum reported that companies, including Nike and the NFL, have declared Juneteenth a paid holiday. Apple includes Juneteenth on its iOS calendar.

Worldwide relevance

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a range of resources that can help explain and celebrate the history of black emancipation.

The site states:

“The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole. Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. Given the 200+ years of enslavement, such changes were nothing short of amazing. Not even a generation out of slavery, African Americans were inspired and empowered to transform their lives and their country.”

While Juneteenth has been largely unknown outside of the United States, following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, a growing global awareness means there is an opportunity to learn more and teach more. Teaching Juneteenth provides an opportunity to start a discussion about civil rights, equality, racism and social justice in Australian schools.

Such a significant moment in the fight for human rights should be known more broadly, and Juneteenth can be used to educate our children about the historic parallels and differences in Australia’s own treatment of Indigenous people.


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
SchoolNews - Australia