What is Juneteenth? Inside the newest national holiday

Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, is now a national holiday

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday.

Following a unanimous vote from the Senate and a 415-14 vote from the House to establish June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday.

“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day and today, a national holiday,” Vice President Kamala Harris said during remarks at the White House on Thursday.

“When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement,” she continued. “National holidays are something important. These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often, to acknowledge our history.”

Following Harris’ opening remarks, Biden praised the bipartisan effort to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday and called it a day of “profound weight and profound power.”

“A day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” he said. “At the same time, I also remember the extraordinary capacity to heal and hope and emerge from those painful moments ... to make a better version of ourselves.

“It’s simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth,” he continued. “After all, emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality. It only marked the beginning. ... We have to continue toward that promise, because we’ve not gotten there yet.

“In short, this day doesn’t just celebrate the past — it calls for action today.”

Since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, most federal employees will get this Friday off, The Washington Post reported. Juneteenth marks the first holiday approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, according to CNN.

On Wednesday, as the House voted on the bill, some GOP lawmakers took issue with the name of the holiday, while others expressed concern about the cost of another federal holiday, CNBC reported. Fourteen House Republicans opposed the bill.

Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — who introduced a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday last June — said the Senate’s passage of the legislation “will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants and finally celebrate their freedom,” according to USA Today.

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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, which is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day a Union general named Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves of their freedom, The New York Times reported.

The announcement came at the end of the Civil War — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The lack of Union soldiers in the Confederate state of Texas led to the proclamation not being enforced until Granger’s arrival, the Deseret News reported.

Freed slaves began to celebrate the day with prayer services and church gatherings, speeches, picnics and rodeos. Over the years, Juneteenth has become an opportunity to honor Black history and celebrate Black culture, according to CNBC.

Although the majority of states have passed legislation to commemorate or observe Juneteenth, the day has struggled to become a federal holiday.

Juneteenth’s struggle to become a federal holiday

Rising interest in Juneteenth has developed in recent years — particularly following nationwide protests and conversations over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans, The New York Times reported.

Last year, companies like Twitter, Nike and the NFL announced they would make Juneteenth a paid company holiday, the Deseret News reported. In Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, Juneteenth is an official paid holiday for state employees, according to Congressional Research Service.

But the push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday has seen some setbacks.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called for Juneteenth to become a national holiday in 2019, and the year before, the Senate passed a “Juneteenth Independence Day” resolution that did not reach the House, according to The New York Times.

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Last year, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson blocked another Juneteenth bill from passing largely over concerns regarding the cost in making it a federal holiday, CNN reported. But on Tuesday, he announced he was dropping his objection.

“It sounds like Congress wants to do it, so I’m not going to stand in the way,” Johnson told HuffPost. “I just think it’s kind of odd that now apparently the only way to do (celebrate the end of slavery) is to give 2 million federal workers a paid day off, cost American taxpayers $600 million.”

But the move drew praise on social media and from several senators, including Sen. Sheila Jackson Lee, who helped reintroduce the bill earlier this year, according to USA Today.

“We celebrate the first passage of the bill in the Senate! This has been a long journey,” Lee posted on Twitter. “We’re working very hard to get his bill signed by the President in the near days in order to have a historic celebration of Juneteenth this June 19, 2021. It has been a long journey! Juneteenth equals freedom and freedom is what America is about!”

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