U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed a bill into law on Thursday afternoon to make June 19 a federal holiday commemorating the end of the legal enslavement of Black Americans.
The bill, which was passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday after a unanimous vote in the Senate, marks the day in 1865 when a Union general informed a group of enslaved people in Texas that they had been made free two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.
“Juneteenth marks both a long hard night of slavery subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come,” Biden said. He said the day is a reminder of the “terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.”
Biden said “great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…they embrace them.” He spoke in a room filled with about 80 members of Congress, local elected officials, community leaders and activists such as Opal Lee, who campaigned to make Juneteenth a holiday.
Biden and his fellow Democrats are under pressure to respond to a slew of Republican-backed state bills that civil rights activists say aim to suppress voting by minorities, and to meaningfully address the disproportionate killing of Black men by police.
“It’s important to commemorate emancipation and to encourage everyday Americans to reckon with the history of slavery … but there is always a danger with these sort of things so they can be performative,” said Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College who specializes in African-American history and civil rights.
Designating Juneteenth a federal holiday will be a “failure” if it just acknowledges the date without spurring action on issues such as police brutality, voting rights, and the racial wealth gap, Delmont said.
The law comes a year after the United States was rocked by protests against racism and policing following the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
Juneteenth will be the eleventh federally recognized holiday, joining a list that includes Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Independence Day, as well as days honoring presidents and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Inauguration day, when the U.S. president is sworn in, is also a federal holiday every four years.
Federal employees will start taking the holiday off this year, observing it on Friday since Juneteenth falls on Saturday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said on Twitter.