Juneteenth explained for international students

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Juneteenth holiday marks the end of slavery in the United States and the Juneteenth National Independence Day will become the 12th legal federal holiday. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

June 19 (more commonly known as Juneteenth), 1865 marks the day Black American slaves in Texas were set free. Recently, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed a bill into law to make this a federal holiday as they push to address the country’s historical injustices.

“I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honours I will have as president,” Biden said at the White House during a signing ceremony.

“I regret that my grandchildren aren’t here, because this is a really, really, really important moment in our history. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history — and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come (and) the distance we have to travel,” Biden said.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is more than just an acknowledgment of the date. Biden claims the administration has begun efforts to address long-standing systemic racism in housing, education, incarceration and more. 

Below we dive into the significance of Juneteenth: 

Opal Lee

She is considered by many as the grandmother of Juneteenth as she has tirelessly been working to make it a national holiday since 2016. This 94-year old activist from Texas made a  two and a half mile pilgrimage to commemorate June 19 and has since garnered over 1.5 million signatures for her petition for Juneteenth with


Lee is considered by many as the grandmother of Juneteenth as she has tirelessly been working to make it a national holiday since 2016. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

Juneteenth flag and colours

Created in 1977, the flag has the same colours found in the US one: red, white and blue. They show that the formerly enslaved were and are Americans. It also features red and blue stripe sections separated by an arc that signifies new horizons and opportunities. A large white star in the middle represents Texas bursting through with new freedom.

Although these are the formal colours, you’ll also see people celebrating with red, black and green. Why? Because these are the colours of the Pan-African flag made in 1920 by the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. This symbolises Black liberation and freedom.

What’s closed

Non-essential federal government offices, US Post Offices, most banks, and many offices, schools and institutions (unless state ones) will be closed.

What companies are doing

Apple stores in the US are giving employees Friday before Juneteenth off, AT&T will encourage employees to take time off if they want to, Google is cancelling Friday meetings to honour June 19 and will host a two-hour event putting Black music, history and storytelling in the spotlight.

Lyft will honour this holiday by a paid off day, as will Nike and Facebook. Starbucks’ hourly employees will receive 1.5 times their regular wage on June 19 and Thurgood Marshall College Fund students will take over Citi Foundation’s Instagram account to celebrate on Saturday.

The Smithsonian Channel recently unveiled a series of video essays featuring writers, activists, artists and community leaders and teachers discussing this holiday. They will also air a six-part docuseries “Boiling Point” which examines the history of systemic racism and police brutality in America.

What education institutions are doing

Many institutions are holding virtual seminars, volunteering events and so forth to commemorate this day. Florida International University is hosting a celebration for its students and the public, the University of Washington listed local celebrations that one can attend or volunteer at, and Ohio University will participate in a Juneteenth Festival that includes live music, food, vendors and children’s activities with a donation drive available to Ohio students of colour.