US makes Juneteenth, marking end of slavery, a federal holiday

Most US states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or commemorate the day, but the bill made June 19 the 12th federal holiday and the first new one in 38 years.

US President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on 17 June 2021 in Washington, USA. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States on Thursday designated Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the country, as a federal holiday, with President Joe Biden urging Americans "to learn from our history."

Most US states recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or commemorate the day, but the bill made 19 June the 12th federal holiday and the first new one in 38 years.

The date has taken on renewed resonance in recent years with millions of Americans confronting the country's living legacy of racial injustice.

"This is a day of profound weight and profound power, and to remember the moral stain and the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take what I've long called America's original sin," Biden said.

He hailed the country's "extraordinary capacity to heal and to hope and to emerge from those painful moments and a bitter, bitter version of ourselves."

The bipartisan measure cleared the Senate by unanimous consent on Tuesday after one Republican in the chamber ended his objection, and the House of Representatives passed it in a 415-14 vote on Wednesday.

"All Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we've come but (also) the distance that we have to travel," Biden told activists and politicians gathered at the White House.

Among those present was campaigner Opal Lee, 94, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, who sat in the front row. Vice President Kamala Harris held her hand as Biden signed the act and handed her a commemorative pen.

Juneteenth National Independence Day is held on 19 June to celebrate the day in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans learned that they were free.

A Union Army general in Galveston, Texas where president Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had yet to be enforced nearly three years later announced that slavery was abolished in Texas and across the country.

June 19 falls on a Saturday this year and will be marked on Friday.

Juneteenth last year came against a backdrop of protests fueled by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The officer has since been convicted of murder.

Major US companies including Nike and Twitter announced in 2020 they were making Juneteenth a paid holiday for employees.

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.