By Glynn Cosker
This afternoon, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that designates Juneteenth as the 11th annual federal holiday in the United States. Vice President Kamala Harris joined the president at the signature ceremony in the East Room of The White House.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” said President Biden. “By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history and celebrate progress.”
Also known as “Emancipation Day,” “Jubilee Day,” or “Freedom Day,” Juneteenth is celebrated each year on June 19 in commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly affirmed the legislature by a vote of 415-14 on Wednesday. A day earlier, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the bill without a roll-call vote and with no objections from the chamber.
“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. on Wednesday. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”
Recognizing Juneteenth: ‘Our Country’s Second Independence Day’
It’s fair to say that almost 100 percent of Americans are familiar with Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, that’s not true of Juneteenth.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website states “Juneteenth marks our country’s second Independence Day. Although it has long been celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans.”
A recent Gallup poll showed that only 37 percent of respondents reported having “a lot” or “some” knowledge of Juneteenth – even though 47 states and the District of Columbia currently observe the holiday in some way. In fact, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia recognize the day as an official paid holiday.
With Juneteenth now an official federal holiday, the day will surely gain more recognition.
The History and Significance of Juneteenth
On June 19, 1865, the last groups of American slaves were informed by Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, that they were free.
Maj. Granger opened his remarks with: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
An Ominous Precursor
However, Maj. Granger’s statement came two months after the Confederacy had surrendered – and a hefty two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on Jan. 1, 1863. That major delay in informing the slaves of their freedom (by the slaveholders) – and the fact that it took federal intervention to officially make change happen – was an ominous precursor for what was to come in the nation. The horrific and inhumane scourge of slavery was gone, but the mistreatment and oppression of people of color would continue for more than a hundred years.
Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation in public places and discrimination based on race was rampant and commonplace – especially in the South. The decades following the Civil War saw an abhorrent wave of atrocities including the lynching and wrongful imprisonment of Blacks, and Jim Crow laws that continued into the 20th century. Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, Juneteenth has gained greater awareness and significance as a national holiday of observance – especially in light of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the recent 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
‘A Celebration of Progress’
The newest federal holiday is being heralded as bipartisan legislation supported by an overwhelming majority of Congressional voters celebrating the official 156-year history of Emancipation while recognizing the ongoing movement supporting racial equality.
As former President Barack Obama remarked in 2015: “Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible – and there is still so much work to do.”