Juneteenth National Holiday Could Be Made Official by Joe Biden Within Weeks

Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of those enslaved in the U.S., could officially become a federal holiday within weeks after the Senate unanimously approved the move in a vote on Tuesday.

The bill is expected to easily pass the Democrat-controlled House, which would then send it to President Joe Biden's desk for his signature. Under the legislation, the new federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Juneteenth "brings balance to American holiday celebrations," Steve Williams, the president of the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation, told Newsweek. "We were not free on the Fourth of July."

"Juneteenth commemorates the moment some of the last formerly enslaved people in the nation learned that they were free," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

"Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past. But we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution."

I just put a bill on the floor of the Senate from @SenMarkey and @SenTinaSmith to make #Juneteenth a federal holiday.

It passed the Senate!

Next up: It should pass the House. Then to President Biden’s desk for signature.

— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) June 15, 2021

Schumer also celebrated the bill's passing on Twitter.

"I just put a bill on the floor of the Senate from @SenMarkey and @SenTinaSmith to make #Juneteenth a federal holiday. It passed the Senate!" Schumer wrote. "Next up: It should pass the House. Then to President Biden's desk for signature."

Juneteenth, a holiday that received its name by combining June and 19th, celebrates the day the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free.

Juneteenth celebration in 2020
People participate in a march in Brooklyn for both Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Civil War had ended when Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn't reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell them they were free.

The announcement came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Southern states was issued.

The majority of states in the U.S. already recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, and most hold celebrations. It is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and some companies have also adopted Juneteenth as a paid day off for employees.

"We have a long road towards racial justice in the United States and we cannot get there without acknowledging our nation's original sin of slavery," Sen. Edward Markey, who sponsored the bill, tweeted earlier this week.

"It is long past time to make Juneteenth a federal holiday."

We have a long road towards racial justice in the United States and we cannot get there without acknowledging our nation’s original sin of slavery.

It is long past time to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) June 14, 2021

The bill was passed under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process of considering legislation, and one senator's objection can block such agreements.

An attempt to pass the bill last year failed after Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, objected. He said that was due to the cost and lack of debate.

In a statement, Johnson noted that he has supported resolutions recognizing the significance of Juneteenth in the past, but he was concerned that a new holiday would give federal employees another day off at a cost of about $600 million per year.

"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," Johnson said ahead of Tuesday's vote.

The legislation has gained momentum since the killing of George Floyd in May last year and the summer of protests against racial injustice that followed.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows responses to a survey asking Americans what they think about Juneteenth.

Juneteenth Familiarity
A graphic from Statista showing Americans' familiarity with Juneteenth familiarity, based on a Gallup poll. Statista

Update 6/16/21 7:55 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add a graphic.