Over the weekend thousands will join in celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Texas – a tradition that stems from 1865.
But this year’s festivities also mark the milestone of Juneteenth being on its way to becoming a federal holiday, following an unexpectedly fast legislative process with the legislation winning final passage from Congress in a matter of days after years of effort.
With a 415-14 vote, the House approved the legislation Wednesday about 24 hours after the Senate unanimously approved the bill Tuesday evening.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign it into law Thursday, in time for the annual holiday on Saturday. The action came after another impassioned push by Opal Lee, the North Texan known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. Several members of Congress singled out the Fort Worth civil rights icon as a leader in the long effort to more formally recognize Juneteenth nationally.
The bill represents the culmination of years of work by various members of the Texas delegation, though especially Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who has introduced legislation calling for the holiday’s federal recognition multiple times.
“What I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom,” Jackson Lee said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “47 states have taken up a commemoration and celebration because there is something about freedom that is contagious. And that is what this holiday will bring about.”
Juneteenth celebrates the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – over two and a half years after it went into effect. On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to inform some of the last slaves in the United States of their freedom and to announce the end of the Civil war.
Jackson Lee read some of Granger’s words on the House floor Wednesday during the scheduled debate.
“‘The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,’” she read.
Texan activists have long called for Juneteenth, also known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” to receive national recognition. Lee garnered national attention for the movement in 2016 when she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C.
“The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free,” she told The New York Times last year. “Knowing that slaves didn’t get the word for two and a half years after the emancipation, can’t you imagine how those people felt?”
Lee spoke with several lawmakers involved in the effort this week. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., one of the key cosponsors of the bill in the Senate, took a moment during the press conference with Jackson Lee, Sen. John Cornyn and others Wednesday to thank Lee for her efforts.
“I want to take a moment to recognize and thank Ms. Opal Lee, who is a true gem in the fight for Juneteenth,” Markey said. “An educator, an activist, Ms. Opal Lee has been a voice for history and we would not be standing here today without her tireless work to make this holiday a reality.”
Cornyn, who introduced the bill in the Senate with Markey, Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn. and Cory Booker, D-N.J., said Wednesday afternoon he was delighted to hear the House was going to take up and pass the Senate bill quickly.
“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” he said. “I believe that there’s no better time than the present … to acknowledge our nation’s history and to learn from it.”
Enslaved people in Texas were kept in the chattel slavery system for two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, long after other Confederate states had freed enslaved people, said Rebecca Hankins, a historian and Africana Resources Curator at Texas A&M University. Hankins said recent events have left her reflecting more on what that experience could have been like.
“That boggles the mind. That’s a long time. People had probably died still enslaved, even though they were really free,” Hankins said. “We don’t know how many people died in that state of mind that they would never be free. It is just unconscionable.”
It’s a significant gesture, Hankins said. But there is still a long way to go in fighting racial inequality, she said, pointing specifically to GOP-backed election legislation – which advocates have roundly criticized as especially restrictive of Black and Hispanic voters – as well as backlash over education reform that would critically analyze institutional racism.
“I’d prefer not to have this holiday if it meant you’d stop suppressing my vote,” Hankins said. “It’s a good thing, it’s a great thing, but you know, it’s a beginning. It’s not the end.”
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, spoke on the House floor during the debate, saying he and other Republicans objected not to the holiday itself, but to the proposed name of the holiday: Juneteenth National Independence Day.“By embracing a name that is gonna be seen as conflicting with or correlated with our July 4 national independence recognition… I don’t believe that the title ‘National Independence Day’ works,” Roy said. “I would prefer that we just have a debate on that, I wish we would have done that in Committee.”