Biden Signs Bill Making Juneteenth A Federal Holiday

Photo from the Boston Globe.

By Terrance Turner

June 17, 2021 (updated June 18)

Today, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday. It’s the first such federal declaration since Martin Luther King Day was declared in 1983. Federal workers will get tomorrow off, given that June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.

Legislation commemorating Juneteenth passed the House yesterday with a 415-14 vote, according to CNN. It had passed unanimously in the Senate the day before. The bill’s co-sponsors included Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

“I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president,” Biden said at the White House during a signing ceremony.”I regret that my grandchildren aren’t here, because this is a really, really, really important moment in our history. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history — and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come (and) the distance we have to travel,” Biden said.

Vice President Kamala Harris also celebrated the legislation, which she had sponsored while in Congress. “Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday,” Harris said, to cheers and applause in a White House East Room filled with about 80 lawmakers and other guests.

“And looking out across this room, I see the advocates, the activists, the leaders, who have been calling for this day for so long, including the one and only Ms. Opal Lee,” Harris said. Lee championed the bill and launched an effort to nationalize it at the end of the President Obama’s second term. In 2016 (at age 89!), Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. in an effort to have June 19 become a federal holiday. (She later spoke to Variety and clarified that she didn’t walk all 1400 miles. “I did some hundreds,” she said, “but not 1,400.”)

From September 2016 to January 2017, Lee traveled the country, marching in cities that invited her to take part in their Juneteenth festivities. “I went to Shreveport and Texarkana, Little Rock and Fort Smith, Denver and Colorado Springs,” she recounted. “I went to Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Carolinas. I was all over the place.”

Ms. Lee, now 94, was in attendance during the ceremony. She was thrilled by the federal declaration. “I was overjoyed; I was ecstatic,” she told the anchors of “GMA: What You Need to Know” the next day. Lee emphasized the need for people of all nationalities to honor Juneteenth: “We are brothers and sisters under the skin, and we should act like it.”

‘We must learn our history. And we must teach our children our history,” Harris said today. Her words are especially poignant given the timing. on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that forbids the teaching of ‘critical race theory’, an academic study of race and racism in the United States. The bill states that “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” — which would include events such as Juneteenth itself. The dichotomy was not lost on observers:

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, TX, with some news. “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger read, quoting General Order Number 3. (That order was found yesterday, by staff at the U.S. National Archives. The photo is shown above.) The “Executive”, President Abraham Lincoln, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 — two and a half years earlier. But the news didn’t reach the slaves until 1865, for reasons that are still unclear. (In December of that year, the 13th Amendment was passed, outlawing non-penal slavery nationwide.)

The slaves reacted with shock and jubilation to the announcement, according to Juneteenth.com. Many of them moved to Houston; the city’s black population more than tripled, per documents in the Library of Congress. One of those freed slaves was Jack Yates, who moved to Houston within days. According to ABC 13 Houston, Yates came to Houston and worked hauling freight. He became a Baptist preacher. He was the first pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church — Houston’s first black Baptist church. In 1872, he and three other men bought several acres of land for Emancipation Park, on what was then Dowling Street. (It is now Emancipation Avenue.) The four men bought the park so that they (and other black people) could celebrate Juneteenth.

Rep. Al Edwards (D-TX) authored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. Though he met resistance even from fellow Blacks, Edwards persisted. House Bill 1016 was passed by the Texas Legislature, making Texas the first state to officially commemorate Juneteenth.

By 2020, every state recognized the holiday except Hawaii, South Dakota and North Dakota. Last Juneteenth, Beyoncé surprised fans with a late-night release of her new single “Black Parade”. It benefits her foundation BeyGOOD’s Black Business Impact Fund, administered by the National Urban League, to support Black-owned small businesses in need. The song (a Tidal exclusive) is a celebration of Blackness and Black people. “We got rhythm, we got pride/We birth kings; we birth tribes,” Beyoncé sings. “I can’t forget my history is herstory… We black, baby. That’s the reason why they always mad.”

Juneteenth became an official state holiday on Jan. 1, 1980. Now, at last, it’s a federal holiday, too. And Jackson-Lee (D-TX) is proclaiming the occasion as a launching point for a commission on reparations. “I think our Congress, our House, can be a leader in voting on a commission established by the United States Congress to study slavery, to discuss their proposals for the disparities that are still going on today,” Jackson Lee said on June 18.

“It is also the launching point for correcting the social ills, like improving our police community relationships, getting the voting system turned right side up, making sure we don’t have that unfortunate situation of people being denied the right to vote,” Jackson Lee said.

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