WASHINGTON — The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.
The House voted 415-14 Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19th, the 12th federal holiday. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk, and he is expected to sign it into law.
Juneteenth commemorates the day the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about 2 1/2 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.
“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.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“Can you imagine?” said the rather short Jackson Lee. “I will be standing maybe taller than Sen. Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”
The Senate passed the bill a day earlier under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.
“Please, let us do as the Senate. Vote unanimously for passage,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded with his colleagues.
The vote 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.
“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. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor after the Senate’s vote the day before.
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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 vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.
Under the 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 coopting 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 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.
By KEVIN FREKING Associated Press