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Congress Approves Bill to Make Juneteenth a Federal Holiday


FILE - Khalil Brass of the Brothers of Brass performs at an event to mark Juneteenth, a salute to the day when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free, in Denver, June 20, 2020. Juneteenth will soon be an official national holiday.

The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.

The House voted 415-14 Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 12th federal holiday. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden's desk to be signed into law.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn't reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.

It's the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

"Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones," said U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney. "I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States."

Standing tall

Speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

"Can you imagine?" said the rather short Jackson Lee. "I will be standing maybe taller than Senator Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy."

FILE - New Orleans baby dolls dance at the ancestor oak tree in Congo Square, in celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the end of U.S. slavery in 1865, in New Orleans, June 20, 2020. Juneteenth will soon be an official national holiday.
FILE - New Orleans baby dolls dance at the ancestor oak tree in Congo Square, in celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the end of U.S. slavery in 1865, in New Orleans, June 20, 2020. Juneteenth will soon be an official national holiday.

The Senate passed the bill a day earlier under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator's objection to block such agreements.

"Please, let us do as the Senate. Vote unanimously for passage," Representative David Scott of Georgia pleaded at one point with his colleagues.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, and had 60 co-sponsors. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor.

Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana 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.

Most states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.

Official name

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Republican Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana said that 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 co-opting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?" Higgins said.

"I want to say to my white colleagues on the other side: Getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule themselves," Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Michigan Democrat, replied, adding, "We have a responsibility to teach every generation of Black and white Americans the pride of a people who have survived, endured and succeeded in these United States of America despite slavery."

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