Juneteenth just became a federal holiday. A bill to make it the 12th federal holiday was passed by the Senate and House earlier this week, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on Thursday, June 17.

So, what exactly is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, the last slaves in the United States were officially freed.

More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, it was still not being honored in parts of the country, keeping hundreds of thousands of people enslaved throughout Texas. Union General Gordon Granger showed up in Galveston, Texas with nearly 2,000 Union troops and enforced General Order No. 3.

“There were no Union troops there to enforce the new laws and to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Slave owners in Texas refused to acknowledge the Union and to acknowledge that they could no longer own slaves,” said National Museum of African American History and Culture specialist and oral historian Kelly Navies. “Without the presence of Union troops, they were at the whim of the Confederacy, even though the Confederacy was actually over.”

Over the last year, Juneteenth has gained a lot of national recognition. Though there is often “waxing and waning of acknowledgment of the date,” Navies said, the country and world saw a convergence of so many different things that led us to this moment. With the highly publicized murder of George Floyd and killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the Black Lives Matter Movement had a global reach, drawing attention to race relations in the United States. Also, former president Donald Trump visited Tulsa, Oklahoma on the weekend of Juneteenth in 2020.

“Those things came together, and everybody’s like, ‘What’s Juneteenth?’” Navies said. “All of a sudden, we see there’s renewed interest because Juneteenth is a great way for all Americans to come together to learn about these things, to confront all of these questions that are arising in a way that can bring the community and the family together.” 

As with any other history, there are myths surrounding Juneteenth. One example is that news never reached Texas because a messenger was kidnapped, which, Navies said, is not true. However, she said it is known that there were lines of communication between freed people and the enslaved, and slave owners were “quite aware of the end of the Civil War.”

Really, it all came down to “the presence or non-presence of Union troops,” Navies said. “That really defined a lot of the way that the African Americans were treated, even after the end of slavery and Reconstruction.”

This map shows the status of Juneteenth observance in every state in 2021. South Dakota was the only state in the country to not acknowledge or observe Juneteenth in any official capacity.

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...