Biden makes Juneteenth a U.S. federal holiday, commemorating end of slavery

U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday a bill to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 12th federal holiday.

Union soldiers brought news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Texas on June 19, 1865

U.S. President Joe Biden holds the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act after signing it, on Thursday in Washington. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Black Americans rejoiced Thursday after U.S. President Joe Biden made Juneteenth, June 19, a federal holiday, but some said that, while they appreciated the recognition at a time of racial reckoning in the country, more is needed to change policies that disadvantage too many of their brethren.

"It's great, but it's not enough," said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City. Grant said she was delighted by the quick vote this week by both chambers of Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday because "it's been a long time coming."

But she added that "we need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don't regress any further. That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time."

At a jubilant White House bill-signing ceremony, Biden agreed that more than a commemoration of the events of June 19, 1865, is needed. That's when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.

"This day doesn't just celebrate the past. It calls for action today," Biden said before he established Juneteenth National Independence Day. His audience included scores of members of Congress and Opal Lee, a 94-year-old Texas woman who campaigned for the holiday.

Biden speaks with Opal Lee after the signing. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Efforts to limit education 

Biden singled out voting rights as an area for action.

Republican-led states have enacted or are considering legislation that activists argue would curtail the right to vote, particularly for people of colour. Legislation to address voting rights issues, and institute policing reforms demanded after the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men, remains stalled in the Congress that acted swiftly on the Juneteenth bill.

Other people want the federal government to make reparations or financial payments to the descendants of slaves in an attempt to compensate for those wrongs.

Meanwhile, efforts are afoot across the country to limit what school districts teach about the history of slavery in the U.S.

Community organizer Kimberly Holmes-Ross, who helped make her hometown of Evanston, Ill., the first U.S. city to pay reparations, said she was happy about the new federal holiday because it will lead more people to learn about Juneteenth.

But she would have liked Congress to act on anti-lynching legislation or voter protections first.

"I am not super stoked only because all of the other things that are still going on," said Holmes-Ross, 57. "You haven't addressed what we really need to talk about."

WATCH | Juneteenth, June 19, is now a federal holiday in the U.S.:

Biden signs bill making Juneteenth a national holiday in the U.S.

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
U.S. President Joe Biden signs bill making June 19th a national holiday. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when legal enslavement of African Americans was abolished. But there are divisions over whether this goes far enough to heal racial conflict.

Many states already observe Juneteenth

Peniel Joseph, an expert on race at the University of Texas at Austin, said the U.S. has never had a holiday or a national commemoration of the end of slavery. But many Black Americans had long celebrated Juneteenth.

"Juneteenth is important symbolically, and we need the substance to follow, but Black people historically have always tried to do multiple things at the same time," Joseph said.

Most federal workers will observe the holiday this Friday, since the 19th falls on the weekend. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that state and city government offices will be closed Friday in honour of Juneteenth. District of Columbia public schools will also be closed Friday.

Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday, including Inauguration Day once every four years. It's also the first federal holiday since the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was created in 1983.

Before June 19 became a federal holiday, it was observed in the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia. Texas was first to make Juneteenth a holiday in 1980.

The Senate passed the bill earlier this week by unanimous agreement. But in the House, 14 Republicans voted against it, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas. Roy said Juneteenth deserves to be commemorated, but he objected to the use of "independence" in the holiday's name.

People celebrate at the Juneteenth historical marker in Galveston, Texas. ((Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via The Associated Press)

"This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the colour of one's skin," he said in a statement.

Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, who also voted against the bill, said "We have one Independence Day, and it applies equally to all people of all races."

The sentiment was different in Texas, the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

"I'm happy as pink," said Doug Matthew, 70, and a former city manager of Galveston who has helped coordinate the community's Juneteenth celebrations since Texas made it a holiday.

He credited the work of state and local leaders with paving the way for this week's step by Congress.

"I'm also proud that everything started in Galveston," Matthew said.