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Juneteenth has long served as an occasion to commemorate and celebrate the end of slavery in the American South. First celebrated in 1866 as Jubilee Day in Texas, Juneteenth has been an official holiday in the Lone Star State since 1979, with many other states following suit.

Commemorating the end of American slavery on June 19 has gradually gained traction nationwide, such that Juneteenth has been officially recognized as a federal holiday. After being passed unanimously by the Senate and 415-14 by the House of Representatives, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 17, 2021.

A history of Juneteenth

The holiday marks the anniversary of U.S. forces entering Galveston, the last remaining Confederate stronghold, where on June 19, 1865, Union Army general Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas were now free. The enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation would thereby be carried out across the entirety of the former Confederacy.

At the end of the Civil War, ensuring the emancipation of all slaves would prove particularly challenging in Texas, with relatively few Union troops present in the vast and largely remote state. Texas had seen its enslaved population grow over the course of the Civil War, as many slaveholders from further east sought to relocate further away from the front line. They hoped this would make it more difficult for slaves to liberate themselves by escaping to Union-held territory.

While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years prior to this date, it would take time and effort to realize the liberation of all enslaved people across the country. Slaveholders were determined to resist emancipation for as long as possible, and Union forces could only gradually liberate slaves as they gained control over more territory in the South.

In some places, such as the Union border states of Kentucky and Delaware, slaves remained in bondage until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, at the end of 1865. Even then, as opposed to creating nationwide equality under the law, the abolition of slavery merely shifted the nature of government discrimination against African-Americans. However, June 19, 1865 was undeniably an important moment in American history, not least for the last remaining slaves to be emancipated in Texas.

Celebrating an important extension of freedom

From a libertarian perspective, the case for the significance of Juneteenth can be summarized as a commemoration of the end of an abhorrent injustice, whereby the legal rights set out by the founders of the United States were finally extended to all Americans. It serves as an opportunity to reflect on an irrational denial of the fundamental right to individual liberty for a large minority of Americans persisted for so long.

Juneteenth serves to celebrate freedom, remembering the jubilation experienced by those whose right to self-ownership was realized for the first time in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, it is also important to consider the shameful manner in which, fueled by racist prejudice, numerous state governments continued to find ways to discriminate against successive generations of African-Americans for over a century after the enforcement of emancipation.

As such, Juneteenth is an acknowledgement that, while America has always held to the principle of being the land of the free, it failed for some time to live up to this promise in practice for a large portion of its inhabitants.

Finally, America’s newest federal holiday should serve not just to celebrate an occasion in which freedom and hope prevailed over injustice, it also presents an opportunity to celebrate the immense contributions to liberty made by former slaves and their descendants.

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