Juneteenth becomes a federal holiday as the country still grapples with racism, injustice

June 18, 2021
Contact: Jared Wadley jwadley@umich.edu

FACULTY Q&A

The country has a new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed into law June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Jason Young

Jason Young

Jason Young, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, said the day—which dates back to 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom—is a significant milestone in U.S. history. Many states recognized the day as a state holiday, but now it’s a federal law that takes effect today (Friday) since it is the closest weekday.

Explain the significance of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday.

As a country, we are defined, in large part, by the stories we tell each other. African Americans have kept the story of Juneteenth alive by sharing it around kitchen tables and in churches, barbershops and community centers. Some of my fondest memories involve Juneteenth festivals that were a hallmark of summer. But when I celebrated, I often did so with the full knowledge that many of my classmates, friends and co-workers knew nothing of the story, its meaning or lasting significance.

At this moment, I am feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the many African American men and women who held so fast to the story of Juneteenth that now, more than 150 years later, the whole country is finally able to hear it.

Why was the timing right for this day to become a holiday?

African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth for many decades, even though the holiday was largely unknown to many Americans. But in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many Americans are now becoming aware, often for the first time, of the starkly different experiences that African Americans have in this country. So, the timing of President Biden’s recent signing reflects a larger reckoning on issues of racial justice in the country.

Many communities are holding celebrations today and tomorrow. What are the messages emphasized now?

As a holiday, Juneteenth is a time of joyful celebration. But it is also a bittersweet reminder of the ever-elusive nature of racial justice in the country. At its core, Juneteenth is a story of freedom deferred. The Emancipation Proclamation was a promise that wasn’t codified into law until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

And despite the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, African Americans continued to live in a state of second-class citizenship until the Civil Rights movement promised a fuller inclusion into American life. But recent events, including the murder of George Floyd, and so many others, make clear that we still have much work to do if we hope to make good the promise of racial equality.

What impact, if any, will this have on race relations?

I am most interested in the impact that the new holiday will have on policy. In the past few years, Americans have been witness to some of the gross inequalities experienced by African Americans and others. The devastating and disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of color has revealed glaring gaps in the health care system. Continuing concerns related to policing have inspired new and continuing calls for much-needed police reform. Discrepancies in education have been exacerbated under the pandemic.

Meanwhile, we have all become painfully aware of just how much our economy depends on communities of color who work on the frontlines every day. Juneteenth serves as a powerful symbol. But I think that it is imperative that we match the symbolic meaning of the holiday with legislation and policy that addresses the health, wealth and security of historically marginalized Americans. As an educator, I am hopeful that the story of Juneteenth will become a part of this country’s standard curriculum. This is especially important now as some legislators continue to push for a highly sanitized version of this country’s difficult racial history.