After years of advocacy, US finally recognizes Juneteenth as a federal holiday
Today, June 19th, marks Juneteenth, a freedom celebration that commemorates the day in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger announced to residents of Galveston, Texas that enslaved people were now free. Also known as Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day, Juneteenth is observed in Black communities across the United States and has been a staple celebration among African-Americans for more than a century. Last Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the National Independence Day Act into law, formally recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being signed in 1862, several states continued to inflict the brutality of slavery upon Black people in the south. Because Texas was the westernmost of the southern states practicing slavery, enslaved people were forced to wait nearly 3 years before they learned that slavery had been outlawed and that they were legally free from bondage. Granger and his Union Army troops were late, but their arrival and the news of freedom they carried with them were no less welcome.
In a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris announced and signed the National Independence Day Act. Officials also honored Opal Lee, the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," for her advocacy work to make Black Independence Day a national holiday.
Lee, 94, has been working for decades to enshrine Juneteenth among the nation's other federal holidays. The Fort Worth native knows intimately the pain and trauma of racial violence. When Lee was 13, her family home was set ablaze by white terrorists in Fort Worth.
"I want all Americans to understand that none of us are free until we are all free, and Juneteenth is crucial to that understanding," said Lee.
After acknowledging Lee during the signing ceremony, Vice President Kamala Harris reflected on the significance of the occasion and the what it means to observe a national holiday.
"National holidays are something important. These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock—and often to acknowledge our history," remarked Harris.
While Harris' words were upbeat and hopeful, President Biden's remarks struck a tone of reverence and responsibility.
"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments...they embrace them. Great nations don't walk away," proclaimed Biden. "We come to terms with the mistakes that we have made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger."
As the nation acknowledges a painfully dark portion of its history by commemorating Juneteenth, America continues to struggle with racial violence and division. Across the country, local governments and their citizens are grappling with the legacy of Confederate monuments and the appropriateness of celebrating those who shed blood to preserve the right to enslave others.
In this moment, the words of Opal Lee provide some hope and optimism for a more harmonious future.
"I advocate that each one of us become a committee of one. Because you know somebody who’s not on the same page with you — so make it your business to change his mind. It won’t be easy, it’s not going to happen overnight. But you can get people to understand that we need each other. To exist, we’re going to need each other."