This year marks the one-year anniversary of the federal government’s recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday. Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, as the day slavery ended. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the Civil War had ended and that slavery had been abolished. With that announcement, the last of the nearly 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were officially freed, two and half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863).
Black communities have celebrated this day in beautiful and varied ways for over 150 years. In 2016, at the age of 89, activist Opal Lee, a lifelong Texan, walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. to bring national attention to the significance of this day and campaign for it to become a federal holiday. Similarly, local and regional municipalities most certainly preceded the federal government’s observance of Juneteenth as a holiday. In June 2021, when President Biden signed a bill to officially observe Juneteenth as a federal holiday, over 45 states and Washington, D.C. had observances or holiday statutes locally. GARE member jurisdictions like Asheville, North Carolina, and Evanston, Illinois, among others, all recognized Juneteenth as a day to commemorate as early as 2020. Dr. Farris Muhammad, Ph.D, Director of Equity and Inclusion, City of Lawrence reflects, “The recognition and celebration of Juneteenth helps to center, with intentionality, narratives of Black resilience and the advancement of racial equity in the U.S.”
Holidays and rituals are one way we tell and reinforce stories about who we are as a nation. On June 19th 1865, Black people were freed but not yet free. Many have observed Juneteenth as a day to “[measure] progress against freedom.” As Samia Byrd, Deputy County Manager, Chief Race & Equity Officer, Arlington County Government, offers, “Juneteenth is a time to celebrate the jubilation enslaved people felt but also a time to remember and reflect on the struggle to get there and the continued fight that followed. Freedom is not free.”
In our current political moment when backlash forces in over 42 states are challenging the honest and accurate teaching of our nation’s racial history, we must recognize, respect, and celebrate the cultural importance of Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. As GARE Director Gordon F. Goodwin reflects, “Juneteenth is an important acknowledgement that the enslavement of Black people existed with the full support of the constitution and the rule of law. It’s an important acknowledgement that the stolen labor of enslaved Black people built this nation. As practitioners and leaders in the GARE network, we acknowledge the history of government sanctioned racial segregation, and the present-day legacy of significant racial disparities. We commit to transforming government into a force for racial equity.”
This first anniversary of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is set to be observed during the historic January 6th hearings that are tasked with investigating the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, and just weeks after a white nationalist gunman viciously killed 10 Black people at a Tops supermarket, in Buffalo, NY.
Goodwin continues, “We [Black Americans] have been loyal to this nation and its institutions, even though we have consistently been denied its protection and basic rights. The fact that we remain committed to making government live up to its promise of ‘liberty and justice for all‘ is the very definition of perseverance and patriotism.”
When asked to reflect on the cultural recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and its connection to material change for Black communities, Goodwin offers, “It is a first step in the long work of atonement that is necessary to achieve reparations.” Various GARE member jurisdictions – some of which have trailblazed efforts for local observations of Juneteenth — are also pioneering reparations initiatives in their municipalities. In the coming weeks, we look forward to highlighting reparations initiatives happening within the GARE network at the local, regional, and state level and sharing more about their approach, progress, lessons learned, and impact.