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Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday, is gaining awareness

A young boy walks past a painting depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a Juneteenth celebration in Los Angeles in 2020. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Jae C. Hong
/
AP
A young boy walks past a painting depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a Juneteenth celebration in Los Angeles in 2020. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth this weekend, the third year since the holiday was given federal status by President Biden in 2021.

The date commemorates the fall of slavery in Galveston, Texas, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 to free enslaved Black people held in the Confederacy.

News of Union troops' victory over the Confederates spread slowly across the South, eventually reaching the shores of Galveston in 1865.

"We are not celebrating the history of Juneteenth. We are celebrating the symbolism of Juneteenth," said Leslie Wilson, professor of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

"The symbolism of Juneteenth is the transition from slavery to freedom."

Celebrations of the holiday started out regionally in Texas, but as Black Americans spread out across the United States, they brought their traditions with them, including remembrances for one of the final vestiges of chattel slavery.

"You could say that Juneteenth had a renaissance, largely because when World War II was over and soldiers came home, it was the second Great Migration. People started traveling from various points in the South to points in the North and points in the West," Wilson said.

"During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, with civil rights and also with the Black Power movement, Juneteenth became a symbol of strength as well as a symbol of triumph for African Americans."

Widespread recognition of the holiday was slow moving. For years, it was a relatively obscure holiday celebrated among Black people with little acknowledgment or understanding from outside cultures and communities.

"I'm sure there's a ton I'm totally unaware of on African American history in the U.S.," said Alex Markle.

Markle and his fiancée were visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the long holiday weekend and said it wasn't until he was in his 40s that he learned about Black history events like Juneteenth, Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre.

"That was kind of shocking that like a big piece of American history was something that I had never learned about and was unaware of that much of my life."

Markle's experience is not unique.

In 2021, when the holiday gained federal recognition, just 37% of American adults said they knew at least something about Juneteenth, according to polling by Gallup.

Just a year later, that number would spike to nearly 60%.

As the holiday has grown in popularity, many Black people have celebrated the idea that African American history would be more widely recognized as part of the fabric of the United States.

"As a Black person, it means a lot to me to celebrate everybody who was free because it's like so many people don't know," said Precious Williams, a Dallas native who was visiting Washington, D.C., over the holiday weekend.

"We celebrate everything in America, you know. So those Black holidays, it's like everybody should know about Juneteenth because it's a part of our history."

But there are also concerns that corporate money-grabs taking advantage of the day could potentially weaken the gravity of such a historic event.

"The significance of it becoming an official holiday is really the fact that it raised awareness of Juneteenth beyond communities that had [already] been commemorating Juneteenth. Beyond that, it seems that the significance, unfortunately, also brings with it some commodification of that day and sort of commercialization of that day as well," said Amara Enyia, a public policy expert in Chicago.

Just last year, big-box retailers like Walmart came under fire for a spread of Juneteenth-themed products deemed tasteless and appropriative by many.

And politically, the holiday has been weaponized by some Republicans as part of an ongoing culture war that claims truthful acknowledgments of race and racism are a ploy to demonize white Americans.

Despite these controversies, for many Monday is an opportunity to reflect on America and its history, as well as consider what the future might hold.

"Juneteenth celebrations are a chance for this country, for the United States to rethink not only its origins, but the relationship of everybody who lives in this country to each other," said Greg Carr, associate professor of Africana Studies at Howard University.

"In many ways, Juneteenth symbolically becomes a litmus test for the possibilities of this country."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise covers race and identity for NPR's National Desk.