Why Juneteenth Needs To Be A National Holiday

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Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, was first celebrated in 1866 — and yet it's still possible for an American to get a graduate degree and not know what it is. I'm living proof of that, and I'm embarrassed. That's only one reason why Juneteenth should be a national holiday. More importantly, though, it's an important part of our national memory, and it deserves the recognition to match its importance.

For those who, like me, need a primer on Juneteenth, the celebration began as a commemoration of June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Texas and freed the slaves there. This was well after the Emancipation Proclamation and even the passing of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, but Texas was so geographically isolated that this became the day when slavery really and truly ended in the United States. The former slaves began celebrating it the following year, and Texas was the first state to recognize it as a state holiday in 1980. Since then, many other states have moved to officially recognize it, but national legislation still hasn't made its way through Congress. Even without national recognition, though, Juneteenth is a fully fledged holiday, complete with a traditional menu. But that, of course, really isn't enough.

Slavery falls squarely into the category of history that is uncomfortable to talk about, made even more complicated by the fact that the U.S. came in late to the abolition game. Because of that, the day doesn't exactly match a great national achievement in the way that July 4 does. For the slaves who were freed that day, though, that moment most likely had a greater effect in their lives than the symbolic declaration of independence from Britain did in the lives of the American colonists. This wasn't some sort of existential freedom from unfair taxation and an antiquated monarchy; it was a literal release of thousands of people who were captive.

Recognizing and celebrating the positive parts of complex and contested historical moments (i.e., the moments when the oppression ended) is also an important and often effective way of creating national unity. There are so many divides in the United States right now, and a national celebration honoring the country's diversity and officially remembering the moment when slavery really ended could bring people together. This is part of our shared national memory, and it would make the nation stronger if everyone — including me and all of the other people who have somehow missed it up until now — actually knew about it.

There are national holidays that go by without much fanfare every year (think Flag Day, for example) and national holidays that are now rightfully questioned — namely, Columbus Day, which has now become hotly contested in many states.

Adding Juneteenth to those ranks would be another way of showing that the country is serious about embracing its diversity and celebrating its most important struggles. It's not just a day for the descendants of those freed slaves — it's a day that everyone in the country should celebrate, because the country became a freer place that day, and that benefited everyone.