Juneteenth 2020: Why the Holiday Is as Important as Ever This Year

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Happy Juneteenth! This holiday -- named for and celebrated on June 19 -- commemorates the true ending of slavery in the United States. (You'll note, it is not Jan. 1, the date of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. More on this below.) From its celebratory roots in churches across Texas, Juneteenth remains short of a national holiday -- for now -- but is recognized nationwide in most states.

This year's Juneteenth will get high-profile recognitions via Alicia Keys and John Legend's "battle of the pianos" on Instagram Live and the "Black History Month Spectacular" on AMC's Sherman's Showcase. But more than a century after the final enslaved people were freed, too many still don't know why celebrating June 19 is important -- and why America still has much to grapple with its legacy.

Why June 19?

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, declaring "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State... shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." It wouldn't be until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and any enslaved people were freed by executive order.

"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," Granger's proclamation read. "The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

Juneteenth This Year

George Floyd
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Juneteenth has garnered increased attention this year for a number of reasons, the first being that President Donald Trump not only scheduled his first campaign rally in months for June 19, but it was to take place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre -- one of the single worst acts of racial violence in history. (Trump would eventually reschedule his rally for the next day.)

Yet it's hard to imagine the holiday wouldn't have had added significance this year, amid global protests against systemic racism and police brutality following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor -- as well as the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells and too many more -- and increased calls for allies (specifically white allies) to better educate themselves. (Ava DuVernay's 13th, for instance, connects the dots from the abolishment of slavery to the prison industrial complex and our modern epidemic of mass incarceration.)

In Pop Culture

TV Shows

"Juneteenth," Black-ish (ABC) and "Still... Because of Slavery," #blackAF (Netflix)

ThroughBlack-ish and #blackAF, Kenya Barris has put the black experience at the center of two modern family comedies. In Black-ish's season 4 premiere, "Juneteenth," Barris takes inspiration from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to shine a light on the lack of black holidays. "There’s no holds barred here. We are full-on Broadway-ing it," star Tracee Ellis Ross told ET.

Three years later, Juneteenth appears in #blackAF, which doubles down on the ideas he presented in Black-ish by offering a brief history lesson on the date's significance and showing how Barris' onscreen family gathers in honor of June 19.

"Juneteenth," Atlanta (FX)

Created by and starring Donald Glover, the acclaimed FX comedy blends surreal humor with stark reality to hold a mirror up to the human condition. Season 1 episode "Juneteenth" (written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Janicza Bravo) sees Earn (Glover) and Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) attend a pretentious Juneteenth-themed party thrown by an affluent biracial couple, where the cocktail list includes drinks like Frozen Freedom Margarita and Plantation Master Poison.

Juneteenth Jamboree (PBS)

Juneteenth Jamboree is an ongoing PBS series that examines the holiday's significance in black culture. Each 30-minute episode delves into various elements that have influenced Juneteenth over its 100-plus-year history, including Texas’ own African American heritage, the heroes who emerged from it and life in the frontier following the Civil War.

Movies

Miss Juneteenth

Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples drew on her own childhood in Galveston to shape the world of Miss Juneteenth, about former pageant queen turned single mom Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) as she struggles to make ends meet and uplift her daughter to fulfill her dream deferred.

"The story is largely about a woman, a family, trying to survive and figure out how they're going to relate to each other," Beharie told ET about the film, which debuts on demand on June 19. "It's about the future, and it's about the community and the values that they have and who is valued and who isn't. What are the codes of conduct? Who gets discarded and why?"

Books

Juneteenth: A Novel, by Ralph Ellison

The Invisible Man author's second novel was published in 1999, five years after his death. Set in the 1950s, Juneteenth tells the story of a race-baiting senator, Adam Sunraider, who recalls his childhood spent with a black con man turned reverend who took him in and raised him in the church. The celebration of Juneteenth, it turns out, marked Sunraider's initial departure point both physically and spiritually -- he dismissed it as "the celebration of a gaudy illusion" -- but all these years later, does he regret leaving it behind?

Juneteenth Specials

Juneteenth Black Family Reunion

REVOLT and the NAACP team up for a virtual special hosted by ET's Nischelle Turner, with guest speakers (including NAACP Leon W. Russell and Derrick Johnson, and Bishop T.D. Jakes) and performers. Tune on Friday at 4:00 p.m. ET on REVOLT.

Juneteenth Freedom Day Marathon

BET kicks off their Juneteenth schedule with social justice-themed episodes of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin, followed by programing that "celebrates the resilience of the African American spirit" and interspersed with messages from the likes of Senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, Reverend Al Sharpton, Chloe x Halle and more. Tune in starting Friday at 7:00 a.m. ET.

Sherman's Showcase's Black History Month Spectacular

Sketch comedians Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle present a hilariously unapologetic special episode in honor of Black History Month, including guest stars comedian Lil Rel, journalist Jemele Hill and Vanderpump Rules stars Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz.

"With everything going on in the world, what better time for the spectacular?” Riddle tells ET. "If our role on June 19th this year is just to bring a little bit of levity, a little moment of happiness and joy into people's lives because they thought we did some stuff that was funny, then I'm very comfortable with that." Tune in Friday at 10:00p.m. on AMC and 11 p.m. on IFC.

How to Help

Juneteenth is widely celebrated with events where people share good food while discussing the future of the community. Due to social distancing mandates and other restrictions still in effect across the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's festivities will look a little different.

If getting together with friends and family is not an option, there are a number of ways to honor Juneteenth this year, including via donation to a nonprofit such as the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund or The Bail Project, as well as to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU.

In looking ahead to celebrations outside the ongoing pandemic, there is a Change.org petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The petition was started by 93-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas.

"I believe Juneteenth can be a unifier because it recognizes that slaves didn't free themselves and that they had help, from Quakers along the Underground Railroad, abolitionists both black and white like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, soldiers and many others who gave their lives for the freedom of the enslaved," Lee says.

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