US Congress votes to make ‘Juneteenth’ a federal holiday

Congress sends a bill to President Biden making June 19 a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the US.

On July 23, 2020, New York State passed a bill to designate June 19 as Juneteenth to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the US [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

The United States Congress passed a bill on Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the country.

By an overwhelming vote, the US House followed the Senate in passing the bill, sending it to President Joe Biden for his signature. The Senate had passed the bill on June 15 by unanimous consent agreement that expedited the process for considering legislation.

“The passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is a long-overdue recognition for generations of pain and suffering of our Black communities,” said Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved Black Americans learned they were free after the US Civil War between Confederate slave-holding states in the south and free states of the Union in the north.

Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word did not reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the American slaves in 1862.

Known as The US’s “Second Independence Day”, Juneteenth is a major holiday for African Americans and is celebrated in Black communities throughout the US with prayer breakfasts, civic events, family gatherings, barbeques and parties.

A signed copy of Emancipation Proclamation signed by US President at the time Abraham Lincoln and then-Secretary of State William Seward [File: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum photo/via AP]

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognise the wrongs of the past,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday.

“But we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfil the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”

Juneteenth has taken on added significance amid recent nationwide reckoning with the US’s history of racism and widespread national protests following the death of George Floyd last year, a Black man who suffocated under the knee of a white police officer.

“We have so much work to do to rid this country of systemic racism, discrimination and hate,” said Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat.

“We are still today living through the blatant racism and slavery that denied us education, denied us opportunity for economic development, empowerment for ourselves, denied us the right to have a job and own property. It is still an issue in America,” Lawrence said.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson had objected in the previous Congress to a bill to celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday because of the cost and lack of debate, he said.

Johnson noted that he has supported resolutions recognising the significance of Juneteenth, but he was concerned the new holiday would give federal employees another day off at a cost of about $600m a year.

“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. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” Johnson said in a statement before Tuesday’s vote.

Almost all US states already recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, DC.

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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