Image for Juneteenth Now a Federal Holiday and a Day of Healing

Congress has passed and President Biden has signed a bill making Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday. Because June 19 falls this year on a Saturday, federal agencies and many businesses (including CFM) will observe the new holiday on Friday.

Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…they embrace them. We come to terms with the mistakes we’ve made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal.

Legislation establishing the new holiday passed unanimously in the Senate and with only 14 ‘no’ votes in the House. The 2021 Oregon and Washington legislatures moved earlier this month to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Juneteenth refers to when former slaves in Galveston, Texas were told by Union troops they had been freed two years earlier by President  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Black Americans have marked the date since 1866.

KXAN, the NBC affiliate in Austin, carried this recollection of June 19, 1865:

Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that her former master had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling his slaves what had happened.

“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”

Union Major Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865, with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. That was more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. Its observance has continued around the nation and the world since. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“In 1776, the country was freed from the British, but not all the people were free,” says Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. “June 19, 1865 was when the entire country was actually free.”

After signing the legislation today, Biden said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…they embrace them. We come to terms with the mistakes we’ve made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal.”

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

Witnessing the signing ceremony was 94-year-old Opal Lee, the “grandmother of the movement” to make Juneteenth a national holiday. In 2016, when Lee was 89, she walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC to advocate for Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is the first federal holiday created in 40 years since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established on the third Monday in January.