WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden signed a bill into law on Thursday that will make Juneteenth, or June 19, a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
Biden signed into law a bill to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 12th federal holiday. The House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to send the bill to Biden, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously the day before.
"This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take," Biden said.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about 2.5 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.
With Biden’s signature on Thursday, most federal employees will get Friday off — as June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day — on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.
Biden noted the overwhelming support for the bill from lawmakers in both parties.
"I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another," Biden said.
The White House moved quickly after the House debated the bill and then voted for it.
The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.
"Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States."
Democrats in the House and Senate first introduced the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in February.
"Juneteenth honors the end of the years of suffering that African Americans endured under slavery and celebrates the legacy of perseverance that has become the hallmark of the African American experience in the struggle for equality," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who introduced H.R. 1320.
The bill’s passage comes as lawmakers struggle to overcome divisions on police reform legislation following the killing of George Floyd by police and as Republican state legislators push what experts say is an unprecedented number of bills aimed at restricting access to the ballot box. While Republicans say the goal is to prevent voter fraud, Democrats contend that the measures are aimed at undermining minority voting rights.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus took to the floor to speak in favor of the bill. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., said she viewed Juneteenth as a commemoration rather than a celebration because it represented something that was delayed in happening.
FILE - Protesters carry banners and posters of George Floyd during the Juneteenth march on June 19, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating al
"It also reminds me of what we don't have today," she said. "And that is full access to justice, freedom and equality. All these are often in short supply as it relates to the Black community."
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors.
Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., 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.
The 14 House Republicans who voted against the bill were Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Doug LaMalfa of California, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tom McClintock of California, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Rosendale of Montana, Chip Roy of Texas and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.
Federal holidays grant days off of work for federal employees across the country. Title V of the United States Code only empowers Congress to create holidays for federal employees. States are not required to observe them, though many often do. And federal holidays do not mandate off days for employees at private businesses, though companies included them in their list of recognized holidays.
States are also permitted to create their own holidays and the vast majority recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day. Most states also hold celebrations.
Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington. Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday in 1979.
Under the new legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., 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 asked.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., replied, "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."
She added, "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."
The Associated Press and Jordan Smith contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.