Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day) is a day to honor and celebrate liberation. It was 156 years ago on June 19, 1865 that all Americans became free from slavery (despite the Emancipation Proclamation occurring two years prior). Today, the holiday is about celebrating Black culture, history and life, bringing people together to honor all those who came before us and fought for the rights and privileges we hold today.

In 2020, in light of the national resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement amidst the police killings of Ahmaud ArburyGeorge Floydand Breonna Taylor, the holiday took on an even bigger meaning. Americans—many for the first time—were seeking to honor Black lives lost in any way that they could in order to honor and acknowledge the historical struggles of the community.

What exactly is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, takes place annually on June 19. The holiday is a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth.” On January 1, 1863, ahead of the third year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all enslaved people in the rebellious Confederate states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—were free. But Lincoln’s executive order did not fully abolish slavery in the U.S., as it didn’t apply to those held as property in bordering states who were loyal to the Union.

Despite the proclamation, in Texas, slavery was largely unaffected. The confederates considered the state a safe space for slaveholders, as it remained generally unoccupied by Union Army soldiers during the war—mainly because it was one of the furthest away from the border between the Union and the Confederacy, a.k.a, the frontlines of the Civil War. According to PBS, many rebels from neighboring states would flee to Texas with their (illegal) enslaved people.

The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997.

The first flag that represented the holiday was created in 1997 by Ben Haith, the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Three years later, artist Lisa Jeanne Graf explained on her website that she “fine tuned” the original version, resulting in the flag we see today. This was the same year that Haith led the holiday’s initial flag raising ceremony in Boston’s Roxbury Heritage Park, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF).

What do the flag’s colors and symbols mean?

You’ll see that the Juneteenth flag uses the exact same colors as the United States’s flag: red, white, and blue. This was intentional and meant to show that the formerly enslaved and their descendants are free Americans, too.

juneteenth flag at fenway park

According to NJOF, here’s what the individual symbols depicted in the flag represent:

  • The Arc: A new horizon, meaning fresh opportunities and promising futures for Black Americans
  • The Star: Not only is it a nod to the Lone Star State (where Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1865), but it also stands for the freedom of every Black American in all 50 states
  • The Burst: The outline surrounding the star is meant to reflect a nova— or new star—which represents a new beginning for all

    And in 2007, the date of the first Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) was added to the flag.

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