US to observe Juneteenth as federal holiday for first time

New law in 2021 officially recognised day that marks end of slavery

Opal Lee (2nd L), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks watches with US Vice President Kamala Harris as US President Joe Biden looks on after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021, in Washington. / AFP / Jim WATSON
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June 19, also known as Juneteenth, was officially made a federal holiday in the US last year and 2022 is the first time the day will be observed across the country.

In the US, federal holidays technically only grant government workers time off but many private companies adopt the same time-off calendar.

But what is Juneteenth and why is it so important?

What is Juneteenth?

African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth since the 1800s as a date that marks the freeing of the last slaves in the US.

While Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1863, formally ending slavery, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War that all slaves were freed.

On June 19, 1865, the news of the war's conclusion finally reached Galveston, Texas, marking the true end of slavery.

Where is it celebrated?

Juneteenth is celebrated by African Americans across the country.

Texas was the first state to officially declare it a holiday in 1980, and 46 of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit.

Traditions vary from state to state, and while it is a holiday of celebration, some choose to observe it more solemnly to honour those who suffered under slavery.

Juneteenth this year will take on even more meaning after the country was rocked by protests against racial injustice, including Black Lives Matter demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Last year, celebrations were muted by Covid-19 restrictions, with the pandemic hitting black communities disproportionately hard.

With restrictions in most states now lifted, celebrations are expected across the country.

Opal Lee, who is known as the “grandmother” of Juneteenth, told The National after the day became a federal holiday last year: “It's not just a black thing or Texas thing that Juneteenth is freedom. I say we should celebrate from [June 19] to the Fourth of July.”

But Ms Lee acknowledges the bill is only a small step in addressing racism and systemic injustice in America.

“I'm hoping that the country understands when it actually becomes law that we have so much work to do,” she said.