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Why We Celebrate Juneteenth

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On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Unlike Independence Day, which celebrates freedom in a time of enslaved Black Americans, Juneteenth is not recognized as a federal holiday in America.

Nearly 4 million slaves lived in the U.S. just before the Civil War. Slaves built railroads, the White House, and the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol building.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation formally freed slaves, although enforcement of the proclamation was slow and inconsistent. "Forty acres and a mule" was part of the post-Civil War promise to Black Americans. However, President Andrew Johnson explicitly reversed and annulled this part of the proclamation after Lincoln’s assassination, and reparations were never paid.

However, Juneteenth celebrates a date nearly two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865. On this date, Union soldiers told slaves in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. They had not been previously alerted of their freedom.

The year 1865 saw extensive mobilization within the black community, with meetings, parades, and petitions calling for legal and political rights, including the all-important right to vote.

However, by the 1870s, Georgia, and many other Southern states, had reverted from Reconstruction and returned to a white power structure, with political offices held by ex-Confederate soldiers. Laws were passed to again place restrictions on Black lives, to disenfranchise and keep them out of politics and land ownership. A system of sharecropping was created.

The Great Depression forced many Black people off farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, Black Americans had difficulty taking the day off to celebrate. In the late 1970s, the Texas Legislature declared Juneteenth a "holiday of significance [...] particularly to the blacks of Texas."

On June 18, 2009, the Senate apologized to Black Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws with the following disclaimer: “…declares that nothing in this resolution authorizes, supports, or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."

Today Juneteenth commemorates Black American freedom, achievement and the continued pursuit for equality. Its popularity signifies black pride and is a symbol of how far America has come and how much further the country still has to go.

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