The summer months in the U.S. are often marked by a variety of holidays and celebrations, with Memorial Day opening the cultural summer season and Labor Day closing it. 2020 in particular has shown two iconic American celebrations in a new light: Fourth of July and Juneteenth.
Fourth of July is often characterized as prime Americana, marked by large barbeques, baseball games, and fireworks with houses covered in red, white, and blue decorations. Commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the historical document in which the Continental Congress declared the original thirteen colonies’ independence from Great Britain. While the event has regained attention in its iterations in popular culture (such as the acclaimed Broadway musical Hamilton), Fourth of July has served as the national day of the United States and holds recognition throughout the country as a day to recall the values and principles that motivated the founding fathers to create a new nation from 13 diverse colonies.
While some remember this summer for lamented changes in plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic which cancelled mass community parties and beach trips in favor of smaller, safer celebrations, 2020 also marked a stronger recognition of another independence day: Juneteenth. Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day, Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Commemorated on June 19th (hence the day’s moniker), the significance dates back to the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, when a group of Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas following the surrender of Confederate leadership and shared the news that all enslaved peoples were now freedom as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation. This historic news came to former slaves in Texas more than two years after the Proclamation had become official; the executive order had been enforced in a lack luster manner in Texas due to lack of Union troops in the state. With the arrival of Major General Granger, sufficient resources and support arrived to override any remaining resistance to the freedom of slaves.
For many, Juneteenth signifies the ongoing frustrations many African Americans have with the treatment of their communities throughout American history. The two-year gap between the formal liberation of U.S. slaves and its recognition in the Southern powerhouse of Texas is often pointed to as an example of the canyon between positive words and real action in the U.S. government’s approach the black community. As protests and attentions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement grew throughout the summer, many businesses took steps to classify Juneteenth as a holiday, matching long-time recognition of Fourth of July as a time to close offices and celebrate national values with friends and family; with big names such as Twitter, the National Football League, BestBuy and more being integral in these conversations. On a government scale, many states have publicly declared Juneteenth a state-wide holiday, with new proposals to make it a paid holiday arising this summer. Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia formally recognize Juneteenth.
As the U.S. closes a turbulent summer, many have opened their eyes to these simultaneous celebrations of independence for the first time. In the words of Duke University African-American studies scholar Mark Anthony Neal, “Many African-Africans, black Americans, feels as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard in a way across the culture.” The increasing recognition of Juneteenth alongside the traditional commemoration of Fourth of July reflects these shifts and fittingly demonstrates the diversity which defines the United States.