President Biden signed a bill Thursday establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
The move gives federal employees an immediate day off. Because June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, most federal employees will get Friday off.
“By making Juneteenth a federal holiday all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history, celebrate the progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come and the distance we have to travel,” Mr. Biden said moments before signing the bill into law.
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments … they embrace them,” he continued.
Mr. Biden signed the bill at an event in the East Room of the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Opal Lee, a 94-year-old Texas woman who pushed to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Juneteenth marks the date the last enslaved Black people were granted their freedom. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in the coastal city of Galveston, Texas, to tell the enslaved people that they were free.
That final act of liberation came months after the Civil War had ended and more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“The enslaved people of Texas learned the news. They were free and they claimed their freedom. It was indeed an important day,” Ms. Harris said.
The House voted overwhelmingly to pass the Juneteenth Day Act in a 415-14 vote. Those who voted against the bill were all Republicans.
The legislation was passed in the Senate by unanimous consent earlier this week.
By signing the legislation, Mr. Biden puts Juneteenth on the same level as July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and other federal holidays. It is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
The moment was also emblematic of the nation’s broader push to more critically understand the role slavery played in its history.
Hawaii this week became the 49th state to officially recognize Juneteenth but stopped short of making it a state holiday. Only a handful of states, including Texas, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, give state employees a paid holiday on Juneteenth. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan both said Thursday that all city and state agencies would be closed Friday.
Some cities and municipalities recognize the Juneteenth holiday, giving their employees a day off, even if state workers do not. Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, are just two examples where city employees have a paid holiday.
While Republicans and Democrats have split over how to address the history of race in America, support for the federal holiday was overwhelmingly bipartisan.
Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, said he supports celebrating the day’s significance but voted against the bill because Democrats were seeking to divide the country over it.
“They’ve weaponized this bill like they weaponize everything else,” Mr. Biggs said. He said Democrats should have called the holiday “Juneteenth National Emancipation Day” and reached out to the GOP.
“They want to divide, and that’s just a shame,” he said. “It’s an important part of our nation’s history.”
Other Republicans complained about the price tag, estimating that an additional paid holiday for 2 million federal employees would cost taxpayers about $600 million annually.
Sen. Ron Jonson, Wisconsin Republican, who had complained about the bill’s cost, dropped his objection Tuesday, sending the bill to the House. His objection last year prevented the measure from reaching the House.
Democrats on Wednesday celebrated the bill clearing the lower chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called its passage, “an exciting, historic day” that was overdue.
The House bill’s sponsor Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, called its passage “a long journey.”
What I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom,” she said at a press conference Wednesday.