Vice President Kamala Harris kicked off a bill signing ceremony at the White House where President Joe Biden officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people,” said Harris. “We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday.”
Today’s ceremony in the East Room drew nearly every member of the Congressional Black Caucus and dozens of bipartisan lawmakers from the House and Senate. Also in attendance was 94-year-old Opal Lee, a Texas community leader who has campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a holiday. Singer Usher was also among the guests.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing freedom for the state’s enslaved population of 250,000 men, women, and children. Yet the news came belatedly— nearly two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Subsequently coined Juneteenth (melding the words `June’ and `nineteenth’), the day was first celebrated in the Texas state capital in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
“I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president,” said Biden, noting that he wished his grandchildren could have attended.
The “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,” designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday. The measure was introduced in the Senate by Ed Markey and in the House by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Data released last summer by the Harris Poll concluded that two-thirds of Americans think Juneteenth should be a national holiday.
ESSENCE spoke to Ms. Opal Lee after the bill signing. “I am overjoyed and thrilled. I don’t know anything that compares,” she said of the new holiday. “We can begin to heal. It’s not just a day for festivals but to educate. The young people must pass on the history.”