Washington — President Biden on Thursday signed into law a measure that makes June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Vice President Harris, too, marked the White House event with remarks and introduced Mr. Biden.
The bill, the Juneteenth Independence Day Act, headed to Mr. Biden's desk after it overwhelmingly passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Tuesday. Fourteen Republicans opposed the legislation in the House, while it passed by unanimous voice vote in the Senate.
"As we establish Juneteenth as our newest national holiday, let us be clear about what happened on June 19, 1865, the day we call Juneteenth," Harris said, speaking of how the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, were the last in the nation to be informed that the Civil War had ended and they would be set free. The news was brought to them more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederate states.
"They learned that they were free. And they claimed their freedom," Harris said, urging Americans to "learn from our history" and "teach our children our history."
Mr. Biden referred to the new holiday as one of "profound weight and profound power," and said it was "a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country, and continues to take."
But he also said that making Juneteenth a national holiday would enable all Americans to "feel the power of this day and learn from our history, and celebrate the progress, and grapple with the distance we've come, and the distance we have to travel." Great nations "don't ignore their most painful moments," Mr. Biden said. "We come to terms with the mistakes we've made," he added, in order to remember them and begin to heal and grow stronger.
About 80 members of Congress, community leaders, local officials and activists, including 93-year-old, who is known as the "grandmother of Juneteenth," attended the White House signing ceremony,
The president said the work to bring racial equity to America isn't finished yet, and he pointed to fair housing laws, childcare, education, and voting rights as issues that will require more action. Noting that there is still a racial gap in COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S., Mr. Biden said the administration is working to close it and mentioned that Harris will be going on a bus tour to promote vaccinations.
"Today, we consecrate Juneteenth for what it ought to be, for what it must be, a national holiday. As the vice president noted, a holiday that will join the others of our national celebrations," the president said.
With its passage, Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, becomes the nation's 12th federal holiday. It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.
Mr. Biden said he'd probably remember this day "as one of the greatest honors I will have had as president."
The law will go into effect immediately. The Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees the federal workforce, said most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday, since June 19 falls on a Saturday.
Legislation to formally recognize the end of slavery was introduced last year by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, after the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Neither measure, however, received a vote on the floors of their respective chambers. The lawmakers reintroduced their bills earlier this year, with each receiving broad bipartisan support.
While one Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, previously blocked the bill in the Senate over its cost and lack of debate, he said Tuesday he would no longer object, citing a lack of appetite in Congress to further discuss the issue.