Juneteenth is a new federal holiday but has long been celebrated Monday marks the Juneteenth holiday — a date commemorating the fall of slavery in the United States. While it's a new federal holiday, it's been celebrated since the 1860s.

Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday, is gaining awareness

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

America is celebrating Juneteenth today. It's the newest federal holiday on the calendar, and many are still learning about its meaning and origins. NPR's Alana Wise has more.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: The holiday celebrating the last days of American slavery began in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. That was the day Union soldiers rode into town to inform Texans that slavery was to officially come to an end under the Emancipation Proclamation. These enslaved people were among the last to learn of their own freedom.

LESLIE WILSON: We are not celebrating the history of Juneteenth. We are celebrating the symbolism of Juneteenth.

WISE: That was Leslie Wilson, professor of history at Montclair State University.

WILSON: Juneteenth became a symbol of strength as well as a symbol of triumph for African Americans.

WISE: Historically, the holiday was relatively obscure, with its origins in the Southwest. But as Black families migrated, they brought their regional traditions with them, including Juneteenth celebrations of food, family and music.

WILSON: People, particularly who had grown up in Texas, brought the holiday of Juneteenth with them.

WISE: Since that day in 1865, Juneteenth has seen its popularity and visibility rise slowly outside of Black communities and into the broader public sphere. Americans across the country have been taking advantage of the holiday weekend, but some are still learning about its significance, like tourists Alex Markle and his fiancee, who are visiting the National Mall in D.C.

ALEX MARKLE: News to me up until I was in my 40s. So that was kind of shocking that, like, a big piece of American history was something that I had never learned about and was unaware of that much of my life.

WISE: Last year, about 6 in 10 adults said they knew at least a little about the Emancipation holiday, according to a poll from Gallup. Whereas in 2021, just 37% of people expressed some familiarity with the celebration. That was the year that President Biden officially commemorated the date. While Black Americans had always celebrated, the new federal holiday has been somewhat controversial. Wilson, the Montclair professor, put it this way.

WILSON: Kids in America have been taught for over a hundred years that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation. They believe that the Civil War came to an end when Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant. The history of Juneteenth contradicts both of those things.

WISE: Despite its uncomfortable origins and the direct ties many Black people feel with the celebrations, non-Black people can learn from the day as well, according to Greg Carr, an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University. Because of the political turmoil the country has undergone in recent years, Carr says holidays like Juneteenth can help Americans unpack what it means to participate in society.

GREG CARR: I think Juneteenth celebrations are a chance for this country, for the United States, to rethink not only its origins but the relationship of everybody who lives in this country to each other.

WISE: Meanwhile, back on the National Mall, visiting Texas native Patience Williams says she's glad the holiday is getting the attention it deserves.

PATIENCE WILLIAMS: As a Black person, it means a lot to me, you know, to celebrate everybody who was free because it's like, so many people don't know, and it's a part of our history. Like, we celebrate everything in America, you know? So those Black holidays, it's like, everybody should know about Juneteenth 'cause it's a part of our history.

WISE: Celebrations will continue throughout the day.

Alana Wise, NPR News.

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