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New national US holiday, Juneteenth, is today. What to know, how it's observed

We'll explain everything you need to know, from the origins of how the brand-new federal holiday started, what it signifies and how you can observe it.

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Official Juneteenth observances have become more common.

Vitalii Abakumov/iStock

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon, officially making Juneteenth a federal holiday just in time for June 19. This is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, added in 1983. Juneteenth -- a portmanteau of the date it's celebrated -- marks the freedom of enslaved Black people in the US. It's also known as Freedom Day or Jubilee Day. (Unlike most federal holidays, the USPS will still deliver mail Saturday this year.)

"The emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn't mark the end of America's work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning," Biden said just minutes before signing Juneteenth into law. "To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we've not gotten there yet."

The observation of Juneteenth stretches back to 1865, but the holiday gained significant national attention in 2020, after the deaths of George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud ArberyRayshard Brooks and others sparked Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systematic violence aimed at Black Americans.

Here's what to know about Juneteenth, including the history of the day and how it's observed.

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What making Juneteenth a federal holiday means

Now that Biden has signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, it's officially a federal holiday. That means it's established by law, such as other holidays, including Labor Day, Memorial Day and New Year's Day. Now that it's approved, Juneteenth is the 11th federal holiday in the US. Like other federal holidays, banks, schools and government companies (like post offices) are expected to be closed for Juneteenth -- but likely won't widely begin until 2022.

However, federal employees took Friday off to observe the new holiday, the US Office of Personnel Management tweeted Thursday.

How did Juneteenth come to symbolize the end of Black enslavement?

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and read a federal order abolishing the institution of slavery in the state:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."

The moment was significant. Texas had been the last of the Confederate states in which enslavement continued, despite President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery in 1863 and despite the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. Texas was the most remote state in the Confederacy, and it took Union forces until June to reach Texas in sufficient numbers to announce and enforce the federal order that ended slavery there. (The 13th Amendment, which added the abolishment of slavery to the Constitution, passed Congress in January 1865, but wasn't ratified and adopted until December 1865.)

Since June 19, 1865, Americans have observed and celebrated Juneteenth as Emancipation Day, a day of freedom. In 1980, Texas began marking Juneteenth as an official state holiday, the first state to do so. Now, nearly all states commemorate or observe Juneteenth to some degree.

How is Juneteenth observed?

Some traditional ways to celebrate Juneteenth that you may still see today are rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball, according to the Juneteenth website. A prayer service, speaker series, reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and dances are among other early Juneteenth celebrations, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

How can I celebrate Juneteenth in 2021?

Order food from a Black-owned restaurant: Support Black restaurant owners in your community by ordering food on Juneteenth and beyond -- here are eight ways to find Black-owned restaurants where you live. Yelp and Uber Eats can help you find these restaurants on their apps.

Black lives matter. Support the cause these eight ways: From making donations to getting more involved in your local community, here are real ideas you can participate in to support the Black Lives Matter movement and antiracism, even from your living room.

Educate yourself and reflect: While slavery ended in 1865, racism persists in countless institutions. Use June 19 as a day to reflect on critical issues that perpetuate discrimination against Black people in America and around the world. Spend the day reading about Juneteenth's history, including how Black families felt after being emancipated. Watch the documentary 13th on Netflix, or engage with other movies, shows, books and podcasts that can help reveal real-world, present-day issues. 

Watch online Juneteenth events: Tune in to the virtual Juneteenth music festival or online celebrations and find a listing of local events where you live, like this one.

Place a sign in your front yard: Raise awareness and show your support for Juneteenth by decorating a sign for your front yard or door. This is a great way to help educate younger kids in your neighborhood who may not know about the holiday.

Celebrate with a barbecue or family meal: Gather your family together to celebrate freedom. Since the pandemic is still a serious concern, make sure you're following your state's guidelines for group gatherings (here are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines). We recommend social distancing with people outside your household and the wearing of face masks when you aren't actively eating.

Juneteenth only comes once a year, but there are more ways you can help your community all year long -- for instance, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

In which states was Juneteenth already a paid holiday?

While many states celebrate Juneteenth as a holiday, these are the states that observe it as a paid holiday:

  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington