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Biden signs into law bill establishing Juneteenth as federal holiday

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when a Union Army general arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law Thursday, officially making June 19 a federal holiday and giving national recognition to a day commemorating emancipation.

"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."

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first female and Black vice president, said designating a federal holiday "makes an important statement."

"These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history," Harris said, urging people to be clear-eyed about the realities of slavery and the long fight for freedom.

Image: President Joe Biden hands a pen to Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021.
President Joe Biden hands a pen to Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.Evan Vucci / AP

Because June 19 is a Saturday this year, most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management tweeted.

The House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to make Juneteenth a national federal holiday, a day after the Senate cleared the bill without debate. The only no votes came from Republicans.

Juneteenth — also known as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day and Jubilee Day — is the 11th federal holiday and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery and commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger's message came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Think about that: For more than two years, the enslaved people of Texas were kept in servitude. For more than two years, they were intentionally kept from their freedom," Harris said.

The 13th Amendment was ratified a few months later, in December 1865, formally abolishing slavery in the U.S.

The date is already celebrated as a state or ceremonial holiday in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Texas became the first to make it a state holiday in 1980.

Around 80 members of Congress, local elected officials and community leaders and activists attended the signing ceremony Thursday in one of the largest events Biden has hosted at the White House. Among the guests were the musician Usher and Opal Lee, 94, the activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who is credited with having led the fight to make Juneteenth a nationwide federal holiday.

"I think this will go down for me as one of the greatest honors I have had as president," Biden said before he signed the bill.

The push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was catalyzed last summer after a white police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, a Black man, sparking nationwide protests and conversations about how the country should address its history of racism.

Congress remains at odds over how to address recent legislation in Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict voting access, as well as police reform. School boards nationwide have also erupted in fights about how to teach children about racism and equity.

While many lawmakers and advocates celebrated the national recognition of Juneteenth, some also warned that it was not a substitute for policy reform, a notion that Biden echoed in his speech Thursday. The promise of Juneteenth, Biden said, would not be "fulfilled so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack."

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in a statement that as "we work towards substantive pieces of legislation to protect voting rights and create transparency and accountability in policing, we are encouraged by today's signing of the Juneteenth bill."

"It is a reminder that freedom is an ongoing fight," he said.

Although the holiday will be observed for the roughly 2 million employees of the federal government, it is unclear how many states or private employers will recognize it.