WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden is set to sign legislation into law Thursday to make ‘Juneteenth,’ or June 19, the 12th federal holiday. The House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to send the bill to Biden.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday — titled Juneteenth National Independence Day — on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.
“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston on Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“Can you imagine?” said Jackson Lee. “I will be standing maybe taller than Sen. Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”
The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus went to the floor to speak in favor of the bill. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said she viewed Juneteenth as a commemoration rather than a celebration because it represented something that was delayed in happening.
“It also reminds me of what we don’t have today,” she said. “And that is full access to justice, freedom and equality. All these are often in short supply as it relates to the black community.”
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor after the Senate’s vote the day before.
Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said creating the federal holiday was an effort to celebrate “identity politics.”
“Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no,” he said in a press release.
Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said he would vote for the bill and that he supported the establishment of a federal holiday, but he was upset that the name of the holiday included the word “independence” rather than “emancipation.”
“Why would the Democrats want to politicize this by coopting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” Higgins asked.