Juneteenth Likely to Be a Federal Holiday After Senate Unanimously Approves Bill 

The Senate has unanimously passed a measure to commemorate June 19

US Capitol building
U.S. Capitol building. Photo: Getty

The Senate unanimously approved a bill that would make Juneteenth — a date commemorating when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free — a federal holiday.

The bill passed Tuesday evening and is expected to easily pass the House before being sent to President Joe Biden to sign into law.

The measure would make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday in the United States. The date is also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day and Juneteenth Independence Day.

June 19 marks the date that news of the Confederate surrender reached the last enslaved Black people, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas, in 1865 some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed slaves in the Southern states.

On that day, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, announcing that, in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, "all slaves are free."

"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 order read. "The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

The official handwritten record of that order is preserved at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

The Senate bill's sponsors celebrated the news of its passage in a joint statement released Tuesday, saying the commemoration on a federal level would "recognize the wrong that was done" and celebrate freedom.

"For far too long, the story of our country's history has been incomplete as we have failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation's original sin of slavery," Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey said. "Today's Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom."

The Senate's approval came after earlier objections voiced by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who said his opposition was due specifically to the cost of creating a federal holiday.

Johnson dropped his objection earlier this week while still offering some criticism in a statement released Tuesday.

"While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object," he said.

The House is expected to vote on the measure Wednesday.

Calls to make Juneteenth an official holiday have increased over the last year in large part due to a renewed focus on racial injustice in the country. Washington and Oregon both passed bills earlier this year declaring the date a state holiday.

Currently, 48 states and Washington, D.C., recognize the date as either a state or ceremonial holiday, with only South Dakota not yet recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, according to USA Today.

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