Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively freeing the last of the enslaved population of the Confederacy. During Reconstruction, the “freedmen” of Texas began celebrating Juneteenth to commemorate their day of deliverance. Eventually, the holiday spread in Black communities throughout the country as a symbol of the end of slavery. In the wake of a national reckoning on race, Congress has now passed legislation to make it a federal holiday. 

After the Continental Congress declared the independence of the United States of America in July 1776, John Adams, the foremost advocate for independence, immediately wrote to his beloved Abigail how he hoped the day would be remembered. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” 

Opinion: Why ‘Juneteenth’ should be a national holiday

Americans (especially Utahns) have lived up to that vision. In honor of July Fourth, houses of worship preach liberty and praise freedom. Parades make their slow march through the main streets of small towns and big cities alike. No other holiday is celebrated with as much community fanfare, whether in flag raising ceremonies, local 5K runs, park barbeques or nightly concerts. And, of course, there are “Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

In the years ahead, Juneteenth deserves the same community reverence and celebration. In 2016, at age 89, Opal Lee walked from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of Juneteenth. “The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free.” Lee has a vision — maybe even a dream — that Americans will one day celebrate freedom “from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July.” 

There is a danger that many instead will view Juneteenth only as a “Black” holiday, rather than a national one. That would be a tragedy. In addition to the important role of celebrating Black heritage, Juneteenth should be a celebration of family, faith and freedom by all Americans

There has been no greater anti-family policy or practice in the history of the United States than the institution of slavery, as it ripped families apart on auction blocks from Richmond to New Orleans. And there has been no more significant pro-family movement than the abolitionist societies that spread in churches, schools, aid societies and homes. Of all the God-given rights restored through the abolition of slavery, none was more precious than the rights to be respected as parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Juneteenth celebrates family. 

The abolition of slavery in America was also a profoundly religious event. The enslaved men and women of America drew inspiration from the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. To communicate in code on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman would sing the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” with its lyrics drawn from the divine injunction, “Let my people go.” After Frederick Douglass made a passionate pre-Civil War plea to take up arms against slavery, Sojourner Truth stunned the audience with a question, “Frederick, is God dead?” Douglass would later see in the outbreak of the Civil War “invisible forces” leading to the end of slavery. And when Abraham Lincoln subsequently announced his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he told his Cabinet it was the result of a “covenant” with God. Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, described Lincoln as having determined, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.” 

Juneteenth completes the promises of the Fourth of July.

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Until Juneteenth, celebrations of freedom on July Fourth exposed a painful contradiction — none more so than on July 4, 1826. On that day, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as the nation celebrated a Biblical “jubilee,” Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the two men most responsible for the Declaration, died on the very day of its anniversary. To satisfy Jefferson’s debts, the enslaved families of Monticello were sold at auction. One family, the Fossetts, watched as their four daughters and an 11-year-old son named Peter were separated and then sold to strangers. 

Through remarkable events, most of the Fossetts were eventually reunited. Peter Fossett served in the Civil War and later became a minister in Ohio. Before his death, he traveled to Monticello, where he became a curiosity for journalists as the former slave of Thomas Jefferson. Walking atop Monticello as a free man, he was reported to have recited the words of Jefferson. We might imagine that among them were these: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Juneteenth completes the promises of the Fourth of July.

With our love for family, faith and freedom, Utahns should lead the way in celebrating Juneteenth. The governor and Legislature should consider appropriate state commemorations. The Freedom Festival should expand its reach to fulfill Opal Lee’s vision of celebrating freedom from Juneteenth to July Fourth. Schools should teach the holiday’s history. Communities should show appropriate “Pomp and Parade” and even “Illuminations” (i.e. fireworks). Businesses should respect the holiday for their employees. Churches should preach the “signs and wonders” of emancipation. And families in homes and neighbors on streets should pause to reflect on Lincoln’s humble response as he met an elderly and recently freed slave, “You must kneel to God only and thank Him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.” 

Here are some major businesses that will celebrate Juneteenth with PTO or holiday pay

Correction: An earlier version described June 19, 1865, as the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived in Galveston, Texas, omitting the presence of federal troops to enforce the proclamation.  

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