Juneteenth is set to become a federal holiday, after the US Senate unanimously passed a measure to formally recognise the abolition of slavery and the nation’s “second” Independence Day on 19 June.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a motion to pass the bill on Tuesday, days before 2021’s Juneteenth commemorations, without objections. It now heads to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass before heading to Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson – the lone senator who blocked the proposal in 2020 – dropped his objections this year.
After years of attempts, the proposal has gained considerable support over the following year amid racial justice uprisings across the US.
Though not recognised among the nation’s list of federal holidays, Juneteenth has widely represented the emancipation of enslaved African Americans following the Civil War and its violent aftermath, and is the oldest nationally recognised commemoration of slavery’s end.
Some state and local governments have declared it a holiday, and a growing number of companies, universities and other institutions have recognised the day with remembrance events and as a paid holiday.
On 19 June 1865, roughly 2,000 Union Army soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people were now free.
But the announcement arrived more than two years after Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, which signalled the end of slavery in the US but did not end the enslavement of all people in the nation at the time.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the US, wasn’t passed by Congress until 31 January 1865. It was ratified later that year.
Meanwhile, roughly 200,000 Black men had enlisted among the Union ranks in the months before Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on 9 April.
What was left of local Confederate armies and militia men held out in uprisings as slavers in the southern states migrated west to the Confederacy stronghold of Texas, along with thousands of enslaved people they had taken with them.
For the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas upon the Union Army’s arrival, General Granger’s order didn’t instantly release them from their chains; many slavers suppressed the news to the people they enslaved.
Juneteenth was not formally recognised in Texas until 1979. It was the first state to do so.
The day is now observed in most states, but not on the federal level. It is widely celebrated with community gatherings, concerts, memorials and other events.
Slavery’s formal end ushered in a decade of Reconstruction, which sought the continued emancipation of Black Americans and inclusion of the secessionist states into the US amid white supremacist paramilitary terror and a devastated post-war economy.
While the 13th Amendment prohibited the enslavement of Americans, it exempted slavery for those convicted of a crime. “Black codes” in economically devastated southern states subjected harsh penalties for newly freed Black Americans for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew, ensuring they would remain in chains for decades to follow.
The practice of “convict leasing” prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became ”slavery by another name” that is echoed in today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans.
Independence Day, or the Fourth of July – which marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – is recognised nationwide just a few weeks later.
In his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” address in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted the nation’s hypocrisy of celebrating Independence Day while imposing a brutal regime of slavery.
Juneteenth is set to become the first new federal holiday since the addition of Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983.