Herald on Sunday
US signs Juneteenth celebrations into law
The United States government is catching up with Black people who have been commemorating the end of slavery in the United States for generations with a day called “Juneteenth”.
President Joe Biden signed a bill passed by Congress to set aside June 19 as a federal holiday.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” he said.
The Senate approved the bill unanimously; only 14 House Republicans — many representing states that were part of the slaveholding Confederacy in the 19th century — opposed the measure.
The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that the man she referred to as “old master” had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling the people he enslaved what had happened.
“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said at the time. “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 General 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.
The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. Its observance has continued since. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.
What does ‘Juneteenth’ mean?
The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day.
Often celebrated at first with church picnics and speeches, the holiday spread across the nation and internationally as Black Texans moved elsewhere.
Most states recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.
The national reckoning over race helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jnr Day was created.
Bipartisan support emerged as lawmakers struggle to overcome divisions that are still simmering following the police killing last year of George Floyd in Minnesota.