WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.
The House voted 415-14 Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19th, the 12th federal holiday. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Southern states.
It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.
“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United. States.”
Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“Can you imagine?” said the rather short Jackson Lee. “I will be standing maybe taller than Senator Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”
The Senate passed the bill a day earlier under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.
“Please, let us do as the Senate. Vote unanimously for passage,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded at one point with his colleagues.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor.
Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said creating the federal holiday was an effort to celebrate “identity politics.”
“Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no,” he said in a press release.
The vast majority of states recognize 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.
Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said he would vote for the bill and he supported the establishment of a federal holiday, but he was upset that the name of the holiday included the word independence rather than emancipation. “Why would the Democrats want to politicize this by coopting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” Higgins said.
“I want to say to my white colleagues on the other side, getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule themselves,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., replied, adding, “We have a responsibility to teach every generation of Black and white Americans the pride of a people who have survived, endured and succeeded in these United States of America despite slavery.”
Following the passage of the bill in the House, Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia’s 4th Congressional District released a statement.
“June 19th is an important day for our nation and its history. Recognized as the oldest celebration to mark the end of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth commemorates the day when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally received word from Union Forces that the Civil War had ended and that they were free. Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s sordid history with slavery, acknowledge and commemorate the progress that has been made, and renew our commitment to advancing equity and justice for all.
“Today’s passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is an important step in honoring the African American community and commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, but we cannot stop here. We must continue the fight to combat systemic racism and racial inequalities in all facets of American life and to ameliorate the harm African American communities have faced for generations.
“I applaud my colleagues in the House and Senate for passing this crucial legislation, and I look forward to celebrating Juneteenth as a federal holiday this year and in the years to come.”