What is Juneteenth? The history behind the holiday celebrating the end of slavery

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ByGray Hall via WPVI logo
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
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Gray Hall traces the origins of the African American celebration which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

Dr. Molefi Asante, Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University says June 19th, 1865, also known as Juneteenth, is a day that blacks in America should never forget.

"It is relevant in 2020 and I am hoping that in 3020 it is still relevant," Dr. Asante says.

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It marks the day Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with word that the Civil War had ended and Africans were now free.

That news did not reach the enslaved people in Texas until two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed blacks in Confederate states.

"We were so excited and said, 'wow, this is beautiful we are free,' Dr. Asante said. "Many blacks left. They went to Kansas, some just said I am out of here and went to Mexico. People were just leaving saying, 'I am getting out of here, we are free.'"

In 1980, Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday.

Also known as Freedom-Day or Emancipation Day, it is not yet a National Holiday, but is recognized as a state holiday or considered a special day in 47 states.

Gwen Ragsdale, Executive Director of Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia, encourages people to visit museums like hers to learn about African American History.

"You can't talk about the American history without recognizing 400 years of bondage of the African Americas who were kidnapped and forcibly bought to America," she says.

Communities across the country continue to celebrate that day of freedom, realized in Texas back in 1865.

Of course, this year's Juneteenth celebrations, which include community festivals, cookouts, prayer services and other events reflecting on the past, will look much different due to COVID-19.

Dr. Asante challenges families not just to celebrate, but to educate themselves about a pivotal point in black history.

"I would like to have the parents read to their children about the incredible and audacious story of African ancestors," Dr. Asante says.

All week long, 6ABC will be bringing you stories leading up to. Follow along at https://6abc.com/tag/juneteenth.