President Joe Biden on Thursday signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth — the celebration to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States — as a federal holiday.
“Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a brighter morning to come,” Biden said in a signing ceremony at the White House. “This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.”
“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and today, a national holiday,” said Vice President Kamala Harris.
“We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” she said at the White House signing ceremony. “We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It’s also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”
The House voted Wednesday evening to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, a rare bipartisan moment that made its way through Congress at a breakneck pace to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
Lawmakers in the House overwhelmingly adopted the bipartisan resolution in a 415-14 vote that joins most states in recognizing Juneteenth as a public holiday. But the measure garnered a little less bipartisan enthusiasm than it did in the Senate, which approved it unanimously a day earlier, with 14 House Republicans opposing the bill.
Juneteenth, which is observed on June 19 and falls on a Saturday this year, has been celebrated in the U.S. for years but gained significant national attention last year following the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. The day marks when a Union general traveled to Texas in 1865 to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The resolution was on a glide path through Congress this week. After the Senate voted Tuesday by unanimous consent to approve legislation establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day, the House Rules Committee swiftly met on Wednesday afternoon so the lower chamber could hold a final vote later in the day.
“Juneteenth is as significant to African Americans as it will be to Americans because we, too, are American, and it means freedom,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a Democratic sponsor, said. “It is a journey of pain, brutality, separation and the racist hand of people held in bondage.”
But even as both chambers quickly came together on Juneteenth, Democratic lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday there’s ongoing work to address racism against Black Americans beyond establishing a new holiday. And politically fraught issues like critical race theory curriculum in schools as well as reforms to policing and voting continue to divide Congress and much of the country.
“(W)e do know there’s a movement to erase history with attacks on critical race theory in teaching children about the presence of racism systemically in our country’s history,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said at a press conference. “To a certain extent, that’s what this celebration today does. It acknowledges slavery as the original sin built into the fabric of the United States Constitution.”