On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, as 13 colonies separated from Great Britain and established the United States of America. But while the Fourth of July is known to represent equality and freedom, all Americans were not free at the time.

That’s why more and more Americans celebrate Juneteenth.

“Too many Americans think of the Fourth of July as a day marking the triumph of freedom and equality in America, as if everyone enjoys the same liberties and opportunities,” Ethan Kytle, professor of history at California State University Fresno, told Yahoo News.

The slavery of Black people would continue for almost a century after the Revolutionary War. Women were denied basic rights.

“White male Americans became free — only white males,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, a national expert on race relations and executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” questioning how Americans celebrated freedom “in a nation that kept millions of Black people in chains,” Kytle explained.

The American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), who helped recruit African American regiments during the Civil War, ca. 1879. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Juneteenth’s origins

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in America. But the Civil War was still raging, and the South’s brutal enslavement of Black people continued.

“Those proclamations by the federal government did not reach everyone, nor did everyone in those rebelling territories feel that they were obligated to follow the dictates of President Lincoln and the federal government,” Corey D.B. Walker, professor of humanities and director of Wake Forest University’s program of African American Studies, told Yahoo News.

More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, on June 19, 1865, federal troops went to the Confederate holdout in Galveston, Texas. The Union soldiers read proclamation aloud, ensuring that all slaves were free, marking the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth today

“Think about that: For more than two years, the enslaved people of Texas were kept in servitude. For more than two years, they were intentionally kept from their freedom,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in June 2021.

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, which recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday, making it the 11th federal holiday.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with President Biden at her side, at an event marking the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act at the White House on June 17, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

“To me, making Juneteenth a federal holiday wasn’t just a symbolic gesture. It was a statement of fact for this country to acknowledge the origin of — original sin of slavery,” Biden said at the Juneteenth celebration on Tuesday.

For two centuries, Black Americans celebrated the holiday unofficially, until the racial reckonings of 2020 prompted political and business leaders to recognize it as an official day of freedom. The change is “because of what we saw with the killing of Breonna Taylor, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd,” Lassiter said.

According to Walker, Juneteenth represents a “fuller expression of freedom,” but not all states recognize it. At least 28 states acknowledge Juneteenth as a state holiday; the states of MinnesotaNevadaTennessee, and Connecticut made Juneteenth a public holiday for the first time this year, according to Pew Research.

In a recent poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Americans are divided on commemorating Juneteenth. While 69% of Democrats support Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday, only 13% of Republicans back the move.

“It’s not an absolute freedom. We’re still wrestling with that, to this day. But we’re on a freedom journey. And these two dates [Juneteenth and the Fourth of July] remind us of significant moments in that journey,” Walker told Yahoo News.

A valuable lesson

Experts say Americans will benefit from appreciating the full significance of Juneteenth.

“They need to learn about Juneteenth, they need to learn about what it looks like, for justice to be delayed, justice to be denied,” Lassiter said. “When you look at the Fourth of July, you have to look at the Fourth of July, for all of its inaccuracies, all of its grandeur, all of its beauty, but also all of this critique.”

Kermit Roosevelt, professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the author of a Time magazine opinion piece on Juneteenth, says many Americans understand July 4 incorrectly.

Event participants at the Juneteenth celebration and parade in San Francisco on June 10. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“It’s not about the freedom of individuals,” Roosevelt said. “And we think about it as if it is, because we value the idea of individual liberty more than … national independence.”

For centuries, Americans have celebrated July 4 as a celebration of “individual liberty and individual rights. But Juneteenth is really the day that celebrates individual rights,” Roosevelt said.

Roosevelt says the two holidays point out the good guys and the bad guys in U.S. history. “We have to reckon with this legacy,” Roosevelt said. “It’s hard for white Americans, really, to feel as good about Juneteenth as they do about July 4, because in the July 4 story, white Americans are the good guys. Whereas in the Juneteenth story, some white Americans are the good guys and in some ways, [white] Americans are the bad guys.

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