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Juneteenth: The long road to becoming a federal holiday

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The Hill, June 2023

Sue Johnson was born and raised in Galveston, Texas, a city on the Gulf Coast. She still remembers every year when she and her family would pack up the car and head to the beach for a day of celebration to commemorate America’s second independence day: Juneteenth. So when the day became America’s newest federal holiday in 2021, she was thrilled. “I was as jubilant as many,” said Johnson, founder and executive director of Galveston’s Nia Cultural Center. “I was very happy that it will be commemorated throughout the country … and I was also curious to see how it would play out in the new arena of being nationally sanctioned.” 

Juneteenth is recognized June 19 to commemorate the last of the enslaved peoples being freed in Galveston by Union forces. Though the city of Galveston has celebrated the holiday since 1866, the push to make the day a federal holiday dates back more than 100 years. On June 19, 1865, Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, which declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” President Abraham Lincoln had legally freed the enslaved in Texas more than two years previously with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the nearly 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston had no idea they had been freed. 

“The information hadn’t reached them yet,” said Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of History and Africana Studies and associate director of Public History at Northeastern University.

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