Juneteenth is one of the oldest celebrations to represent the abolition of slavery in the United States. While Juneteenth acknowledges that racism and discrimination date back to the enslavement period, it also symbolizes that we still have much more work to do for Black Americans to feel free and treated with respect in America. Thanks to a proclamation last year, Juneteenth is now a federal holiday!

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, which is short for June Nineteenth, is a holiday celebrating the day that federal soldiers made their way to Galveston, Texas to announce the end of slavery in the Confederate (Southern) states. While many of us learned that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all those who were enslaved would become free; it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 (nearly two and a half years later) that the message actually reached Texas, proclaiming that the enslaved were indeed free.

Why did it take so long?

During the Civil War, President Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation to protect the Union (Northern states). In fact, the Proclamation only applied to states under Confederate control. During this time, Texas was one of the Confederate states that became a haven for slaveowners and many migrated there to retain their enslaved men, women, and children. It wasn’t until the Civil War ended that General Gordon Granger led Union troops to Galveston, Texas to officially announce that “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Of course, the liberation of Black Americans did not happen immediately. The Proclamation technically allowed bordering Union states, such as Delaware and Kentucky to retain their enslaved Black people without it being illegal. It wasn’t until December 1865 that the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution, officially abolishing slavery (and involuntary servitude) in the United States, with the exception of being used as punishment for a crime.

Juneteenth as a federal holiday

Over the last 40 years, many states have recognized Juneteenth. In fact, Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday in 1979. Today, nearly all states acknowledge Juneteenth as an official holiday, except Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Due to the outcry by Black Americans for racial justice and a plea to all Americans that Black Lives Matter during last year’s protests, many private and public entities have declared Juneteenth as a paid holiday. For the first time in American history, the United States Senate passed a bill to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday unanimously on June 15, 2021, followed by the House of Representatives the next day. President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing June 19th as the 12th federal holiday. Progress continues as the fight for racial freedom in America is acknowledged. Let’s continue to celebrate and educate each other about this important day in American history.

Happy Juneteenth!

Ashley Townes

Ashley Townes

PhD, MPH, Epidemiologist at Centers for Disease Control
Dr. Ashley Townes (she/her/hers), is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati, where she received both her Bachelors and Master of Public Health degrees. She received her doctorate degree in Health Behavior and Epidemiology from Indiana University.

Dr. Townes has experience working as a Community Health Educator and Disease Intervention Specialist in Cincinnati and the surrounding areas. She has worked on several initiatives related to the dissemination of national HIV prevention and care campaign materials tailored for African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, and transgender women of color. Dr. Townes has taught collegiate-level Human Sexuality courses, served as an Epidemiologist at the Ohio Department of Health, and currently works as an ORISE Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention’s Epidemiology Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA.

Ashley’s research background includes work on the sexual experiences of African American/Black women accessing health information and utilizing sexual health services. In 2018, she received grant funding from the Patty Brisben Foundation for Women’s Sexual Health to translate sexual health research data into educational materials. Her career interests are aimed at providing quality sexual education and working towards health equity.