On June 18, 2021, the American Bar Association joined the nation in celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday after President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. This bipartisan Act was a milestone that passed both chambers of Congress, with a unanimous vote in the Senate and a 415-14 vote in the House.
Considered the “longest running African American holiday,” Juneteenth only recently gained widespread national attention following a year of civil unrest and a renewed awareness of racial injustice. While Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, the official governmental and legislative actions taken to end slavery were incremental and complicated, as briefly shown below.
President Lincoln technically freed the slaves from a legal standpoint when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but areas under Confederate control did not observe this order. This resistance left millions of newly freed people either without the knowledge they were free or with few options. As one of the furthest states from the Mason Dixon Line, the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were not freed until Union forces notified them they were on June 19, 1865. This means, while the war had been over for nearly two years, and the Emancipation Proclamation issued even before that, these men and women finally had their freedom.
Even after the last slaves were freed, the fight for equality was far from over. The 39th Congress had been working on ending slavery from a legislative standpoint, and on January 13, 1865, it passed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The required number of states ratified the amendment later that year on December 6, 1865, thereby abolishing slavery in the United States.
Congress continued its legislative work towards racial equality by later passing constitutional amendments that granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. These efforts led to unprecedented political participation by African Americans during the period of Reconstruction. Over 1500 African Americans held political office in the south, and eight in federal office. That number of African Americans serving in Congress would not be obtained again until 1969.
The Juneteenth holiday officially began in 1866 as freedmen in Texas organized and celebrated what they called “Jubilee Day.” As African Americans gained status throughout the United States, the tradition of celebrating Juneteenth moved with them, ultimately bringing this celebration of freedom to national prominence.
The American Bar Association proudly observed Juneteenth on Friday, June 17, 2021, and looks forward to continuing to celebrate its rich history in the future. For more resources on Juneteenth, please visit our Celebrating Juneteenth toolkit on our website.