President Biden Just Signed A Bill Making Juneteenth The First New Federal Holiday In Decades

Published June 18, 2021
Updated June 23, 2021

Juneteenth National Independence Day is the United States' first new national holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. It will be celebrated annually every June 19.

Juneteenth Federal Holiday Being Signed Into Law

Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesPresident Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17, 2021.

The United States has a new federal holiday. President Joe Biden has officially established June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day. The date commemorates June 19, 1865, when the Union Army freed all enslaved persons in Texas following the Civil War and has long celebrated the end of American slavery in general.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” Biden said. “In short, this day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.”

Because June 19 falls on Saturday, the federal Office of Personnel Management said federal workers were free to take Friday off. That makes June 19, 2021 the first federal Juneteenth holiday in U.S. history.

According to Biden, the historic Juneteenth National Independence Day Act marks how far we’ve come as a nation — and reminds us of how far we have left to go.

“The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real, it becomes real in our schools and on our Main Streets and in our neighborhoods,” Biden said.

“So let’s make this very Juneteenth, tomorrow — the first that our nation will celebrate all together, as one nation — a Juneteenth of action on many fronts.”

General Gordon Granger

Wikimedia CommonsUnion Army General Gordon Granger, who delivered the emancipating General Order No. 3 to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865.

The purpose of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is two-fold: to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States and remind Americans that consequential action doesn’t end with the stroke of a pen. Ultimately, that notion began 158 years ago.

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln the prior September, went into effect. It declared that slaves in all but four Confederate-controlled states were free. It took two more years, however, for the 13th Amendment to be passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865 — which outlawed the practice across the country.

But in Texas, slave owners were openly defiant of the laws abolishing slavery. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger of the Union Army delivered General Order No. 3 to Galveston, Texas, with federal authority that the last enslaved Americans in the state were truly freed.

Juneteenth was initially mainly celebrated in Texas before spreading to other parts of the former Confederacy. Then, as African Americans moved northward and westward, the holiday spread too.

But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s that it became a semi-official national day to celebrate the end of slavery. By 2019, all but four states recognized it as either a holiday or observance. It had never been designated nationally until now.

Opal Lee And Joe Biden

Drew Angerer/Getty Images94-year-old activist Opal Lee (left), who has annually walked from Fort Worth, Texas to the capitol since 2016 to gain momentum for the holiday, with President Biden.

“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day and, today, a national holiday,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the bill signing.

Juneteenth passing into federal law marked the first time that a new national holiday has been established since Martin Luther King Day in 1983. At the signing, Biden made sure to single out Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist who has walked from Fort Worth, Texas to the Washington, D.C., every year since 2016 to raise awareness for the measure.

Biden called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday” before meditating on just how historic the bill’s signing truly was.

“All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel,” said Biden, adding that it was “a day of, in my view, profound weight and profound power.”

Juneteenth Celebration In 1900

Wikimedia CommonsA Juneteenth celebration circa 1900. In the early days, Juneteenth was mainly celebrated in Texas and other southern states.

After Biden signed the bill on June 17, public schools around the country closed for Friday, June 18, at a moment’s notice. The White House also cancelled its Friday press briefings and cleared its meetings. The New York Stock Exchange has decided not to close for Juneteenth this year, but claimed to be considering that option for next year.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously after Republican objections to the cost of giving federal workers another day off were cleared away earlier in the week. The House of Representatives voted for it 415 to 14 on Wednesday, with all opposition coming from Republicans. Juneteenth National Independence Day is only the 12th national holiday to have been created.

“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” New York Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, told the Associated Press.

“I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”

After reading about the Juneteenth bill signed into law, check out 44 remarkable photos from the Reconstruction Era after slavery and before freedom. Then, learn about the causes of the Civil War.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "President Biden Just Signed A Bill Making Juneteenth The First New Federal Holiday In Decades.", June 18, 2021, Accessed April 21, 2024.