What is Juneteenth? How the end of slavery in the United States is marked every year

Juneteenth in 2020 is set to be bigger than previous years, but what is Juneteenth and why is the date so significant? (Getty Images)

For African Americans across the United States, ‘Juneteenth’ is an annual celebration, marking the official ending of slavery.

The commemoration on June 19 sees people across the US mark the historic moment Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas in 1865 with news that the American Civil War had ended and that slaves were now free.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth is commemorated across America with rallies, festivals and celebrations.

While some events have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the spotlight on racism in the US following the death of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests means the date is likely to be even more prominent than usual.

What happened on Juneteenth and why is it celebrated every year?

While some associate the ending of slavery in the US with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, in fact the reality was that slavery didn’t end for another two-and-a-half-years.

Lincoln’s proclamation, also known as Proclamation 95, came as the nation approached its third year of civil war.

Effective as of January 1, 1863, it declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the 10 states involved in the rebellion: “are, and henceforward shall be free”.

A sculpture of President Abraham Lincoln looks over visitors the morning after massive protests over the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

However, the proclamation had little impact on the Confederate stronghold of Texas, where southern slavers had escaped, taking thousands of enslaved people with them.

It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that 2,000 Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and all slaves were now free.

The arrival of Granger’s troops, which followed the surrender of General Lee in April that year, meant the forces were finally strong enough to overcome any resistance and sparked celebrations from former slaves.

Juneteenth marks the day that Granger and 2,000 Union troops descended on the Confederate stronghold of Texas and effectively freed those who had continued to be held captive.

The historic moment meant June 19 has become a symbolic date representing African American freedom.

Elected officials, community leaders, youth and drum and marching bands take part in the second annual Juneteenth Parade, in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2019 (Getty Images)

Why is Juneteenth being talked about more in 2020? 

There is a global spotlight on racism - particularly in the US - following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer who held him down by pressing a knee into his neck for nine minutes.

The incident has become a symbol of police brutality against Black Americans and sparked protests across the US and beyond.

Community members take part in a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Black Men Rising, in Camden, NJ on June 13, 2020. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Black Lives Matter rallies have been held in countries including the UK, Australia, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and Canada.

The movement has led to statues being removed in some cities and changes to laws in certain states in the US.

With issues of race at the top of the agenda, it is likely that Juneteenth will resonate even more in 2020 than ever.

Is Juneteenth an official holiday in the United States?

Juneteenth is officially recognised by nearly all of America’s 50 states.

However, unlike ‘Independence Day’ on July 4, it isn’t recognised as a federal holiday.

US Presidents typically acknowledge the day’s significance, including Donald Trump who last year paid tribute to “the indomitable spirit of African Americans” in his own proclamation.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam has said he will support legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday and declared Friday a paid day off for state employees, following Texas.

The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

He said: “It’s time we elevate this. Not just a celebration by and for some Virginians but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Businesses are also recognising the date, with companies including Twitter, Nike and the NFL announcing that they will recognise Juneteenth as a paid company holiday.

In an internal memo sent to Nike staff obtained by Yahoo Finance, CEO John Donahoe wrote: “As many of you may know, next Friday, June 19, is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.

“Starting this year and going forward, Nike will recognize Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday in the U.S”.

He said doing so was an “important opportunity to better commemorate and celebrate Black history and culture.”

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Many of the celebrations that continue today were sparked by the original ways freed Black people celebrated the end of slavery, from readings of the emancipation proclamation and religious services, to cookouts and family sporting events.

Nowadays celebrations include parades, Miss Juneteenth pageants, as well as blues festivals, historical reenactments, picnics, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions and park parties.

DMiss Teen Black Colorado Genesis Oats, 17, left, Miss Black Universe 2017, Michaela Jones, 28, and Miss Black Colorado Universe Lesley Pace, 25, right, join participants in the Juneteenth Music Festival and parade as they make their way down E. 26th Ave. on June 17, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Juneteenth is recognised across the US, with some major companies giving staff the day off to mark the historic date. (Getty Images)

Special museum tours are sometimes laid on for tourists, focusing on African American history, though it is likely that some usual ways of celebrating will be muted amid the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

How is Juneteenth being marked in 2020?

More than 200 official events are set to commemorate Juneteenth in cities and towns across the US, with even more unofficial celebrations likely to be taking place.

Some official celebrations have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but demonstrations against racism and police brutality have been organised instead in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Events to mark Juneteenth 2020 are set to be held in cities and towns acros the US. (Getty Images)

Major Juneteenth celebrations are reportedly set to take place in New York, Atlanta, Washington and Tulsa, while annual festivals usually include anything from parades to Miss Juneteenth Day pageants.

Why was Trump criticised for organising a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth?

Donald Trump came under fire after originally scheduling a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth.

Tulsa was the site of one of the worst examples of racial violence in US history (read more below), so the move was seen as insensitive and inflammatory.

Criticising the President, California Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris said the date and location was not “just a wink to white supremacists — he's throwing them a welcome home party”.

Following a backlash, Trump announced that he had rescheduled the rally to honour requests that it be moved out of respect for Juneteenth.

He tweeted: “We had previously scheduled our #MAGA Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19th – a big deal. Unfortunately, however, this would fall on the Juneteenth Holiday.

“Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents.

“I have therefore decided to move our rally to Saturday, June 20th, in order to honor their requests.”

What happened in Tulsa? 

The Tulsa race massacre is viewed as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.

The incident saw mobs of white residents attack Black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma - at that time the wealthiest Black community in the US, dubbed the ‘Black Wall Street’.

Carried out on May 31 and June 1, 1921, the attack destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district, including businesses, libraries, hospitals, churches and school, leaving dozens of families homeless and hundreds dead.

Trump's decision to hold a rally on Juneteenth 2020 in Tulsa sparked criticism because of the city's historic race riots in 1921. (Getty Images)

Grave excavation projects are underway to find out the full scope of the massacre, though they have been postponed by the coronavirus crisis, and human rights organisations are calling for reparations and support for the city’s black community.