Juneteenth, a new federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States

The country's first new federal holiday since 1983 is the fruit of a decades-long push to acknowledge the importance of emancipation
Timothy Young paints during the Black Joy as Resistance! Juneteenth Celebration on Farish Street in Jackson, Miss., June 19, 2020. Young is one of the organizers of the celebration. Photo: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

First published at The 19th.

President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday to honor the end of U.S. slavery. The move comes after both houses of Congress approved the measure this week, marking a new level of federal action in recognizing the importance of emancipation. 

“This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power,” President Biden said in a statement supporting the bill. “A day in which we remember the moral stain. The terrible hold that slavery took on the country and continues to take — what I’ve long called America’s original sin.”

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when the Union Army reached Galveston, Texas, and announced that slavery had been abolished two years earlier. Texas has marked the day for decades, and many states have also adopted the holiday in recent years. 

June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, so many federal workers will have this Friday off. While federal recognition is a monumental step, allowing two million federal employees the opportunity to officially observe the day, this bill is not an assurance for workers in local and state government or the private sector. The last federal holiday that was enacted, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, passed in 1983 but was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000, only a little over two decades ago.

“This is a very important issue regarding acknowledging the history of slavery in the United States, and the indomitable spirit of African Americans,” said Lillie Coney, the chief of staff for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a sponsor of the House bill. “And that’s what this celebration is about: this history of remembering where and from whence people have come.”

The effort to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday has been decades in the making, in part through the work of activists like Opal Lee of Texas. Lee, who is 94, has spent four decades advocating to make Juneteenth a national holiday, partly through the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. She sat in the White House on Thursday to witness the signing of the Juneteenth Bill.

“We’re blessed to mark the day in the presence of Miss Opal Lee,” President Biden said in his statement before asking the audience to rise and applaud Lee. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi included a nod to the foundation’s creator, the Rev. Ronald Myers, in a statement supporting the measure prior to the House vote.

“Let me salute the activists and leaders who carried this fight to this day, including the late Dr. Ronald Myers For decades until his passing,” the statement said. 

“You don’t know how excited” the foundation is, said Deborah Evans, the organization’s communications director. Evans said that even after 20 years, she was still one of the more junior members of the board. Many, she said, had dedicated their lives to raising awareness of Juneteenth and its place in U.S. history.

A measure to make Juneteenth a federal holiday had stalled in the Senate for about a year, but that changed Tuesday night  after Republican Sen. Ron Johnson lifted his long-running opposition to the move. The vote passed by unanimous consent.

Congress does not typically move this swiftly on something with as much potential impact as a national holiday — it took more than a decade for both houses to pass legislation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day — but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced following the Senate action that the House would take up the Juneteenth measure right away. It passed 415-14.