The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Laws don’t truly make holidays. We have to learn how to celebrate them together.

Juneteenth, like Thanksgiving, existed long before federal recognition or nationwide commemoration

President Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Thursday, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth now joins 11 other holidays recognized by the federal government, but that alone doesn’t guarantee that the holiday will become widely celebrated. The creation of past holidays shows that federal recognition isn’t enough to make a holiday a national event.

Juneteenth isn’t a new holiday. Black Texans have celebrated June 19 since 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger publicly announced in Galveston that the Emancipation Proclamation had made enslaved Texans free. In 1866, there were large celebrations in Galveston, and by the 1880s towns throughout Texas had developed their own way of celebrating. Some, such as San Antonio, had formal programs with prayers and speeches, while others, such as Bastrop, had picnics and baseball games.

By 1915, Juneteenth was celebrated in small towns in Oklahoma, and clothing stores throughout Texas were advertising sales on suits to wear to Juneteenth celebrations. While observance of the holiday ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century, it was a central experience for Black Texans, although the holiday wasn’t recognized by the state government until 1980.

In its long history of celebration without government recognition, Juneteenth has a lot in common with Thanksgiving, which had been celebrated by Americans for generations and recognized by individual states long before it became a federal holiday.

Five myths about Juneteenth

Thanksgiving in the early 19th century was a domestic holiday for giving thanks to God rather than celebrating the arrival of the Pilgrims. Although it was deeply associated with New England, it was also a holiday attached to women and women’s work. When well-known author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale began to advocate that the federal government celebrate Thanksgiving in 1846, people all across the nation were already participating in the holiday. Hale encouraged the hundreds of thousands of women who read her magazine to write to their governors and talk to their husbands. These women did that and more, including writing short stories, poems and songs about the importance of the holiday.

Despite nationwide popularity, it took deep national divisions over slavery for men to do more than scoff at the idea of federal recognition for this domestic occasion. When President Abraham Lincoln made it a federal holiday in 1863, he hoped that this already popular holiday could help unite a war-weary nation. A once-regional holiday became a national event because the people and government leaders wanted a communal experience.

Juneteenth is also a regional holiday with a long history that is now being deployed at the federal level to heal division and build national unity. At its heart, the holiday is specific to Texas, and especially to Black communities in Texas. Many state-specific holidays never become national holidays because they are so tied to the historical experience of a particular group of people — Alamo Day, also in Texas, Pioneer Day in Utah and Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, for example. Because Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in Texas specifically, many Black Americans do not have a public tradition of celebrating Juneteenth. Instead, they have their own summer holiday customs: church picnics, family reunions, Abolition Day and Emancipation Day celebrations. Juneteenth is a Black American holiday, but it is not the Black American holiday.

As with Thanksgiving, advocates have spent decades calling for more recognition for Juneteenth. The holiday originally spread as former Texans took the celebration with them to new homes. Eventually, the Poor People’s March in 1968 ended on June 19 in honor of the date’s significance, and Congress has made resolutions acknowledging Juneteenth, starting with a Senate resolution sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006. Opal Lee, then 94, walked from Fort Worth to D.C. in 2016 to draw attention to the holiday.

In his statement before signing the bill, Biden acknowledged the long work of Lee and others but also made a direct connection between this new holiday and national unity. “By making Juneteenth a federal holiday,” he said, “all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress, and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel.” Biden and others imagine Juneteenth becoming a yearly moment of national unity, but unlike Thanksgiving, this holiday doesn’t yet have decades of widespread celebration to create a national sentiment of shared experience.

Annette Gordon-Reed’s ‘On Juneteenth’ complicates notions of Black history

This isn’t the first new holiday that millions of Americans — of all races and ethnicities — will learn how to celebrate together. At the beginning of the 20th century, American women and doctors worked to reform July Fourth, because each year hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries occurred from fireworks, firecrackers and toy guns. These reformers didn’t just tell Americans to have a “safe and sane” holiday; they showed them how to celebrate by publishing lists of safer activities, sample programs for civic celebrations and children’s stories featuring these new traditions. Their approach worked: Many of our modern Fourth of July celebrations still follow their formulas.

Juneteenth will need champions who are ready to show the nation what to do and why they should do it. We already see important individuals leading the way. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, “On Juneteenth, is a memoir of her childhood in Texas but also a call to Americans to support the holiday.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federally recognized holiday in 1983, sponsors of the bill immediately pursued legislation to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. The idea was to increase education about King’s contributions and support celebration of the holiday through government institutions. While that commission suffered from political wrangling over its funding and oversight, the idea was a good one.

Congress could support the creation of a commission for Juneteenth with similar goals. It could create lesson plans and standards for schools that increase children’s understanding of the holiday, support the holiday through federally funded arts and humanities grants and usher in nationally publicized holiday events.

That could help keep the new holiday from becoming a point of division. While the bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House by all but 14 votes, that has not stopped some politicians from accusing Juneteenth’s supporters of “needlessly dividing” Americans with the official name of the holiday: Juneteenth National Independence Day.

The United States does have divisive national holidays: Columbus Day, which was designated in 1971 as the second Monday in October, has since become a lightning rod for controversy because of Christopher Columbus’s violent and exploitative actions toward Indigenous people. Many Americans now feel that Columbus is not worthy of a national celebration, and the holiday has become less a national celebration and more of a public debate over who should be honored by the federal government.

There have been other attempts to create a federal holiday honoring individuals, including a decades-long attempt to celebrate Cesar Chavez. In 2014, President Obama declared Chavez’s birthday, March 31, as a “commemorative holiday” that did not give federal employees a paid day off.

While Chavez is a hero for many Americans, his legacy also highlights political divisions in the nation: In 2019, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) put forth a resolution to declare Chavez’s birthday “National Border Control Day.” (It was never voted on. Gosar was among the few GOP lawmakers to vote against Juneteenth this week.)

Juneteenth has never been identified with a particular individual, which allows Americans to imbue the holiday with their own values and ideologies. As with Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, this creates a less divisive national experience. But for those who have long celebrated the holiday, it may also come with a sense of loss for the more intimate experience of past celebrations.

There is something fitting in the idea that Juneteenth will fall directly before July Fourth in America’s holiday calendar. It provides much needed context for Independence Day, about who was not included as the nation embraced its vision of itself as the home of the free. But it also provides a patriotic celebration for a nation that has tried to recognize and right its failures.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act does not guarantee that the holiday will become a national event — it will need to become a holiday that people across the nation look forward to and fill with their own meanings. Juneteenth will grow and change from the way it was celebrated as a local and state holiday. But in a nation short on holidays, particularly days that encourage fun, Juneteenth offers America a reason to remember its past and celebrate its future.

Read more:

Juneteenth shows that Black freedom remains elusive

African American holidays, like Aug. 1, deserve national attention

The creation of holidays in America has always been political