U.S. Celebrates First Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday

On Thursday, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Today marks the United State’s first official celebration of “Juneteenth,” a long-recognized day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, after President Biden signed a bill designating it a federal holiday on Thursday. 

Juneteenth, also referred to as Juneteenth Independence Day or Juneteenth Freedom Day, is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. June 19th is the date, in 1865, that Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to notify the still enslaved people that they were now free, months after the end of the Civil War. Juneteenth recognizes the effective freedom of the last of the enslaved people in the United States did not occur immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation, but actually more than two and a half years later. 

Juneteenth has been celebrated since the late 1800s, with some formerly enslaved people and their descendants making annual pilgrimages to Galveston, others gathering for celebrations with their family and friends, parades, festivals and more. Prior to the day becoming a federal holiday, a vast majority of U.S. states had recognized Juneteenth as a holiday, with some states, like New York and Texas, giving state employees a paid holiday. A number of individual companies had also given workers a holiday on Juneteenth, however, not all of them being paid, such as Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX, which “require[d] use of a paid-time-off day.”

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who stated in a tweet, “Even today, as conservatives try to erase history with their attacks on critical race theory and understanding the impacts of systemic racism, we stand here acknowledging the truth. We will make #Juneteenth a federal holiday.”

The bill passed unanimously in The Senate, with 14 House Republicans opposing the bill in the House. People voiced their shock and anger at this opposition on social media, including Twitch streamer and political commentator Hasan Piker, who tweeted “Imagine hating Black people so much you don’t want another day off.”

When asked why he opposed the bill, Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, said "We have enough federal holidays right now,” he said. “I just don't see the reason in doing it. I don't think it rises to the level I'm going to support it." Rep. Thomas Massie, R-KY. argued that having Juneteenth Independence Day would cause confusion with Independence Day on July 4. 

Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created. Many applaud its status as a federal holiday in highlighting its importance, like Pete Henley, 71, who told the Associated Press, “All holidays have significance, no matter what the occasion or what it’s about, but by it being a federal holiday, it speaks volumes to what the country thinks about that specific day.” 

Others raise concern about the official recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday being only a symbolic victory, clouding the work that remains to be done to achieve the collective liberation of Black people in America.

“I am not super stoked only because all of the other things that are still going on....You haven’t addressed what we really need to talk about,” community organizer Kimberly Homles-Ross explained, highlighting that Congress should have passed measures on anti-lynching legislation or voter protections first. 

We've got all of these disparities that we've got to address and I mean all of them,” said Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” for pledging to walk from Texas to Washington, D.C. at 89-years-old to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. “While we've got some momentum I hope we can get some of it done. We can have one America if we try.”

University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. sent an email to the campus community earlier this week, declaring that Juneteenth will be an official University holiday. All classes were canceled on June 18 in observance of Juneteenth. Students were also urged to follow the progress of the Rooted Project, which “aims to produce an updated and complete history of Villanova University that recognizes the central contributions of William Mouldenand diverse other 19th and 20th century individuals to Villanova’s founding and its survival.” 

A number of Villanova students celebrated Juneteenth in various other ways, like Tee Paris, a rising sophomore in CLAS, who participated in a Juneteenth Day of Service at Olney Charter High School with Villanova University Black Alumni (VUBA), the Office of Intercultural Affairs (OIA), and Villanova Athletics.

“I always enjoy service projects because it has been an important part of my life since I was a child,” Paris said. “This one was particularly special because I was with my fellow athletes. I got to know them better, and I got to know the Black Alumni better. Juneteenth for me is about many things but a big part of it is working on strengthening the Black community and I believe that today I did that.”