On Thursday, June 17, President Joe Biden signed legislation which established June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a U.S. federal holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in America. .
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday this year since Juneteenth comes on a Saturday.
A growing number of states and D.C. currently celebrate Juneteenth annually on June 19. It’s a paid state holiday in Virginia and a commemorative holiday in the District and Maryland.
It’s been nearly four decades since Congress, followed by the essential signature of then-President Ronald Reagan, approved the addition of a holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to the federal calendar in 1983.
To mark the historic event, the National Cathedral in D.C. will be lit through June 19 from 9 p.m. to sunrise.
The legislation for which many advocates have passionately proposed for years, passed by Congress on Wednesday, became a more obtainable goal after the Democrats won the White House and control of both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in the 2020 General Election. It passed the House on Wednesday with a 415-14 vote after the Senate unanimously passed the legislation the day before.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Republican, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said in anticipation of Biden’s signature, “what I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom.”
Meanwhile, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Bernice King, referred to the passage of the bill as “an important moment of reckoning.”
“This nation now will have an opportunity to learn even more about this important history that African Americans have faced. It’s a moment that creates a more sense of inclusion . . . A lot of Black Americans don’t feel included on our Independence Day as a nation because so many of our ancestors were not free,” she said.
Conversations about and analyses of the events leading up to Juneteenth have dominated public discourse over the past year with efforts leading to its congressional approval partially sparked by nationwide protests inspired by the police-involved killing of George Floyd in 2020.
Still, it remains to be seen whether local governments and the private sector will choose to observe Juneteenth as several federal holidays, including Veterans Day, Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, routinely go unobserved by many of their employees.
A Brief Synopsis Tracing the Holiday’s Early Roots
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, the end of slavery in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In Galveston, African Americans did not learn of their until nearly three years later. Also known as “Freedom Day,” Juneteenth marks the emancipation of former slaves who remained enslaved in Texas despite Lincoln’s proclaiming an end to slavery on Sept. 22,1862.
In comments referring to the “first Juneteenth,” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said the following in an article originally posted on The Root.
“Maj. Gen. Granger had no idea that in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday – today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States,” Gates writes.
“But Granger wasn’t just a few months late … When Texas fell, and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news – or wait for a government agent to arrive – and it was not uncommon for them to wait until after the harvest.”
“Those [former slaves] who acted on the news did so at their peril,” Gates concludes.
Bipartisan Support Paved the Way
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee count as members of Congress who led the effort to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday.
Howevcer, in 2020, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson blocked the bill, positing that a day off for federal employees would cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. He dropped his objection this week despite his concerns, paving the way for the bill’s passage in the Senate.
“Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate,” Johnson said in a statement. “While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.”
Johnson was not the only member of Congress opposed to the legislation. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, similarly frowned on giving federal workers an extra day off. In fact, Lankford and Johnson earlier attempted to amend the Juneteenth bill to remove another federal holiday.
However, their efforts faced stiff opposition from groups with ties to those days, like Italian-Americans with Columbus Day.
The Senate bill, with 60 bipartisan co-sponsors, could have successfully thwarted a filibuster if one or more senators had objected. But doing so would have taken up considerable floor time that Democrats said would be better spent focusing on more significant issues including an infrastructure bill and the confirmation of judges. That said, passing the bill with a unanimous consent motion, emerged as the most preferred route.
Texas Democratic Congressman Al Green began recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday in his office last year, so when the U.S. Senate passed the legislation, he served as one of the first to express his excitement. He spoke on the historical significance of the passage of the bill just days before Congress and President Biden approved the legislation.
“What began as a grassroots movement to commemorate Texas history is now set to become our nation’s 12th federal holiday,” Congressman Green said.
“In honor of the late Al Edwards – the father of the Juneteenth holiday in Texas – and every person illegally enslaved in Texas during the period between Lincoln’s proclamation and Granger’s announcement of emancipation, I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to vote for this legislation on the House floor.”