The United States government acted quickly last week to create a new national holiday, Juneteenth. The name combines the words “June” and “nineteenth”. It marks the day in 1865 that slaves in Texas were told that they were free.
The new holiday is officially called “Juneteenth National Independence Day”. Though the day has long been celebrated, having it named a national holiday brings a new level of attention to a day that has often been called “Black Independence Day”.
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On January 1, 1863, during the US Civil War, a new rule by President Abraham Lincoln became active. The rule, known as the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves in most of the southern states which were then at war with the Union (US).
But even though the Emancipation Proclamation brought freedom to hundreds of thousands of slaves, many slaves didn’t know about it. In many southern states, slaves didn’t find out they were free until groups of Union soldiers arrived to spread word of the new rule and make sure it was followed.
Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when US Army General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas and told the thousands of slaves there that they were officially free. The news came two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
It took another six months before the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution made slavery against the law everywhere in the US. But for many people, Juneteenth represents the end of slavery in the US. For this reason June 19 has been celebrated every year since 1865.
Juneteenth is already a holiday in most US states, though the way the date is celebrated in the states can be very different. People have been fighting to make Juneteenth a national holiday for decades.
Last year, as Americans protested for racial justice across the US, lawmakers again raised the idea of making Juneteenth a national holiday. Before this, the US only had 11 national holidays. The last time a national holiday was added was in 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was created.
When the government finally took action, it came quickly. Last Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill making Juneteenth a holiday, with all senators voting in favor. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved the bill, with 415 members voting in favor of it and 14 Republicans voting against it.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law, saying it was an “enormous, enormous honor” to sign the bill. Speaking about slavery, Mr. Biden said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments.” He suggested that great countries need to face “the mistakes we made.”
The sudden holiday caused some confusion. Juneteenth fell on Saturday this year. Normally, that would mean that a national holiday would be held on Friday. With only one day to prepare for the holiday, many government departments and other groups were caught off guard.
But the news brought extra excitement and joy to Juneteenth celebrations around the US.