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Juneteenth is the oldest known holiday in the United States, commemorating the end of slavery. Known officially as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, June 19 became a federal holiday on June 19, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.

Specifically, Juneteenth celebrates the occasion in 1865 when two thousand Union Soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, announcing the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Two hundred and fifty thousand enslaved people in Texas were declared free.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; however, Confederate States did not adhere to it until the Union could enforce its provisions after the Civil War in April 1865. Word of the war’s end and the Proclamation declaring all enslaved people free did not reach Texas until June 19.

For many years, the celebration of Freedom Day was confined primarily to the African American Community. Southern states held parades, picnics, and family gatherings to remember the struggles and celebrate the triumphs of Black Americans. As the celebration spread in popularity, several states adopted the holiday, often including reciting the Emancipation Proclamation in observation of the occasion.

Excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation:

“That on January 1, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as enslaved people within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free. The Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom…”

However, it is essential to understand that Juneteenth was not the end of slavery in our nation. The institution of slavery still existed at a state-wide level in Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey. The institution of slavery would not end in those states until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. It is worth noting that Delaware did not ratify the Amendment until 1901. In the states of California and Oregon, about 400 enslaved people also remained post-Juneteenth. These were people brought into those states by slaveholders under terms that allowed the holders of enslaved people to keep any enslaved people they “brought” to the state when they migrated there. The 13th Amendment also freed these individuals in December of 1865. To learn more about slavery in our nation following Juneteenth, visit http://www.tracingcenter.org/blog/2016/06/where-in-the-u-s-did-slavery-still-exist-after-juneteenth/.

The first of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching is the Life and Dignity of the Human Person. The USCCB, on its web page devoted to these themes, states, The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society……. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.   The Emancipation Proclamation was the first step in restoring dignity to formerly enslaved individuals. Like our celebration of July 4, Juneteenth recognizes and celebrates a historic moment in our country’s story and the successes and freedoms that our nation promises.  

Celebrate Freedom Day! As Catholic Americans, this newest federal holiday is one that we can embrace with enthusiasm. On June 21, in the parish auditorium, the Racial Justice Ministry is sponsoring a Juneteenth Celebration—a family-friendly event with food, games, vendors, and more! To learn more about Juneteenth, check out this site from the National Museum of African American History and Culture:  https://bit.ly/41YaQd0 .