President Biden on Thursday signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth — the celebration to commemorate when enslaved people in Texas discovered that they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — as a federal holiday.
Federal employees will observe the holiday for the first time on Friday.
“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 had as president,” Biden said at the signing event.
He emphasized the need for the US to reckon with its history, even when that history is shameful.
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” Biden said, before he established what will be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day. “Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
Biden stressed that there is still work to be done to deliver equality for Black Americans. “The truth is, it’s not — simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.
“To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we’ve not gotten there yet,” Biden said.
Juneteenth is now officially a federal holiday. pic.twitter.com/fiRBXLey9x
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 17, 2021
Kamala Harris, also in attendance, reflected on the historic nature of the day and the presence of Black lawmakers who worked diligently to advance the bill.
Harris, who is the first Black woman to serve as vice-president, told those at the White House for the bill signing: “We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration.”
History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth marks the day that US Army General Gordon Grainger finally reached enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, telling that the American Civil War was over and they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, enacted two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.
For the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas, General Granger’s order didn’t instantly release them from their chains; many slavers suppressed the news to the people they enslaved.
The day now more widely represents the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans across the US following the Civil War and its violent aftermath, and is the oldest nationally-recognized commemoration of slavery’s end.
Parades, festivals, concerts, family gatherings, church services and other community events are hosted across the US, but Juneteenth has remained an unofficial national holiday.
Until now it has not been celebrated on the federal level, whereas the Fourth of July – which marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – is recognized nationwide just a few weeks later.
Celebrations date to 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas. It spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on a food festival.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it was eclipsed by the struggle for postwar civil rights, but grew in popularity again in the 1970s with a focus on African American culture.
As of 2020, Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states that do not recognize Juneteenth, according to the Congressional Research Service.