Why is it called Juneteenth, Freedom Day?

Juneteenth Freedom Day, June 19th​
Juneteenth Freedom Day, June 19th

Most Americans are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation — President Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1863 declaration that freed all enslaved people in the Confederacy — but the proclamation itself didn’t guarantee those freedoms. In fact, it would be a couple of years before Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House to General U.S. Grant.

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders, No. 3, stating that “the people of Texas are informed, that in accordance with the proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Backing up that order with 2,000 federal troops in Galveston, Granger ensured the freedom of a major portion of the last remaining enslaved people within the borders of the U.S.

One year after Granger’s General Orders, No. 3, the newly freed people of Texas celebrated the very first Juneteenth with community gatherings throughout the state that included sports, cookouts, dancing, prayers, and even fireworks.

Juneteenth association to red velvet and red foods​
Juneteenth association to red velvet and red foods

Juneteenth celebrations have been accompanied by red velvet cake (I love red velvet) and red-hued refreshments, whether strawberry soda or red lemonade. There are a few theories behind this color-specific culinary tradition. One is that the color red is a significant hue in West African cultures, often symbolizing strength and spirituality. Another theory is that red featured prominently in the enslavement narratives of Yoruba and Kongo people forcibly brought to Texas in the 19th century. Other historians argue that the color is tied to special occasions dating back to ancient African traditions.

After the Civil War, newly freed Black folks also often infused lemonade with cherries or strawberries to make a cheap, refreshing drink. With the advent of food dyes and the arrival of the Texas-made Big Red soda in the 1930s, red foods and drinks were solidified as a staple of the Juneteenth menu.

The official Juneteenth flag - Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images​
The official Juneteenth flag – Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

Juneteenth has its own flag that was created in 1997. Along the flag’s outer edge, represents the date of Granger’s General Orders, No. 3. The single star in the flag’s center represents Texas (aka “the Lone Star State”) as well as symbolizing the freedom of all Black Americans in all 50 states. Around the star is a “nova” (a kind of starburst), representing the birth of a new beginning for African Americans throughout the country, while the arc across the flag’s center represents a new horizon. Finally, the red, white, and blue color scheme tells us that enslaved people were and forever shall be remembered as Americans.

Although the celebration of slavery’s end stretches back more than 150 years, Juneteenth didn’t become a federal holiday until 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Prior to that, the last holiday to be recognized by the federal government was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, back in 1983. Before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, all but one state (South Dakota) recognized it as a holiday, though only six states — Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Washington, and Oregon — made it an official paid day off (that number has since grown).

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