It took 30 months for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. It took less than half that time for legislation commemorating that day, known as Juneteenth, to make it to the president’s desk.
President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Thursday after the bill passed rapidly through both chambers of Congress this week.
In an East Room signing ceremony, Biden connected consecrating Juneteenth to his legislative agenda, including efforts to counter restrictive voting laws being adopted in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
“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,” said Biden. “We can’t rest for the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That, to me, is the meaning of Juneteenth.”
Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black vice president, spoke of the day’s importance as she introduced Biden.“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,” said Harris. “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 is also a day to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”
In addition to the bill’s cosponsors and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Biden invited Opal Lee to join him for the signing, giving her the first of the many ceremonial pens. Biden called Lee “a daughter of Texas, grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a holiday,” and credited the 94-year-old’s organizing efforts.
Biden’s quick signing will give the federal government’s 2 million employees an unexpected day off this Friday or paid time-and-a-half if they must work. The bill became effective immediately upon being signed, so this June 19 is now a federal holiday. Because that’s a Saturday, “most federal employees will observe the holiday tomorrow, June 18th,” the Office of Personnel Management confirmed Thursday.
June 19 marks the day when Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to find Black men, women and children still in bondage months after the Confederacy’s surrender and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In the years since, Juneteenth grew from a folk jubilee celebrating the de facto end of slavery into a holiday recognized in 47 states and the District of Columbia. But without federal recognition, few Americans got off from work to observe it.
Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday (including Inauguration Day) and the first added to the calendar since Congress established Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986. That push took much longer than Juneteenth: Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr. introduced a bill just days after King’s assassination in 1968, but the proposal didn’t get its first vote until 1979 and didn’t pass until 1983. Along the way, a petition in favor gathered 6 million signatures and Stevie Wonder recorded “Happy Birthday” in support.
While activists have pushed for federal recognition of Juneteenth for years, the legislative effort only began last summer. An attempt to pass the bill in the Senate through unanimous consent was blocked by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who balked at giving federal workers another paid day off.
Last month, the bill’s cosponsors said they’d make another push ahead of June 19, and on Tuesday Johnson announced he would drop his objections. Later that same day, the Senate passed the bill through unanimous consent, and on Wednesday the House voted 415-14 to send it to the president’s deck.