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House passes bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

▶ Watch Video: Passage: The story of Juneteenth

The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would make June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday marking the end of slavery in the U.S. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday and will now go to President Biden’s desk for his signature, which would make Juneteenth the nation’s 12th federal holiday.

“On behalf of all who have waited for this, I thank them,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee said after the vote. “There is more to come in changing lives for justice, equality and freedom. That is what happened today.” 

Jackson Lee and Senator Ed Markey each introduced Juneteenth bills last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a White police officer, but neither received a floor vote. The two lawmakers reintroduced their bills earlier this year with broad bipartisan support.

Senator Ron Johnson, a close ally to former President Donald Trump, had previously blocked the bill in the Senate, citing its cost and lack of debate on the topic. On Tuesday, he said he would no longer object to the bill because, “it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.”

The bill passed 415 to 14: all of the no votes were cast by Republicans. Representative Matt Rosendale, the first Republican to announce he would vote no, said he saw the bill as an attempt to celebrate identity politics. 

“We should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences,” he said. 

For many Black Americans, especially those from Southern states, Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, has been an important day in history for over 150 years.

In 1865, the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally notified that the Civil War was over and they were free. The news came more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation granting freedom to all slaves in the Confederate states.

Since that day, Juneteenth has become a time to both remember the country’s history of slavery and to celebrate Black independence. Still, some states recognize different dates of emancipation. In Florida, advocates are pushing for the state to recognize May 20 as Emancipation Day, when the news reached enslaved African Americans in that state.

In Washington, D.C., April 16 is the city-recognized Emancipation Day because Lincoln had abolished slavery in the nation’s capital on that day in 1862. Now, the recognition of Juneteenth is happening gradually across the country. As of Wednesday, Juneteenth is recognized by 48 states and the District of Columbia as a state or ceremonial holiday.


NYT columnist on Juneteenth’s significance

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Since 1980, Texas has been the only state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. But last year, laws were passed in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia to formally recognize the date starting in 2022 and this year Maine’s governor says the state will do the same.

South Dakota and Hawaii are the only states that don’t currently recognize the holiday. But Hawaii is close to changing that. In April, the state legislature passed a bill to honor Juneteenth. It now awaits a signature from Hawaii Governor David Ige.

Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University, grew up celebrating Juneteenth in a small town just outside of Houston. For her, the day has always been about family and “creating community and connection.”

“It helped shape who I am today. Juneteenth was the only time of year that our little neighborhood, Thompson Chapel in Sugar Land, became the place to be,” Mitchell said in an email. “It felt good to see all kinds of Black people in one place. Juneteenth became a time when I wasn’t made to feel like we were a minority.”


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