President Joe Biden on Thursday signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Senate Bill 475 legally recognizes Juneteenth as a federal holiday, marking the day Union troops landed in Galveston in 1865.
Social activists and civic leaders have raised awareness about Juneteenth for years. Availed by campaigns led by Opal Lee, Fort Worth has become an epicenter for efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee garnered national headlines when she went on a 1,360-mile walking journey from her hometown Fort Worth to Washington, D.C,. rallying support to make Juneteenth nationally prominent. During her crusade, Lee managed to get 1.5 million signatures for her petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
Lee’s years of civic activism culminated in the passing of the law Thursday. The event organizer said Lee and the event are setting their eyes on newer goals now.
“We’re building curriculum and educational components so that the teachers now have something to teach,” said Dione Sims, executive director of Unity Unlimited, organizer of the annual event. “People will research, and they can find the truth about Juneteenth. So, it’s not over just because we have the law. Now, the real work begins.”
Sims accompanied Lee to the East Room of the White House, where Biden signed the bill. In a phone call with the Fort Worth Report, Sims said Lee will be back in Fort Worth by Saturday and will take part in her iconic walk.
“Back there in home, people should expect jubilation,” Sims said, “a whole lot of excitement because we’ve accomplished something phenomenal. We are game to have a great, great time.”
Opal’s Walk will start at 10 a.m. Saturday from the Historic Evans Avenue Plaza and will conclude at Tarrant County Courthouse. The day will feature speakers, a pageantry and art competitions, followed by live performances and a firework show at Panther Island Pavilion.
Here’s what you need to know about Juneteenth:
What does Juneteenth signify?
On June 19, 1865, U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to inform enslaved Black people that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery two years previously, but that message wasn’t delivered in the South.
Texas started commemorating the anniversary of the day as Juneteenth, an amalgam of “June” and “nineteenth,” celebrating the end of slavery throughout the U.S.
Why does making it a federal holiday matter?
The federal government is joining 47 states, including Texas, in recognizing Juneteenth as a public holiday.
Following the passage of the new law, the U.S. government now observes 11 federal holidays. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became one in 1983.
Activists in the Juneteeth movement see the holiday declaration as an important step toward acknowledging the hardships the Black community historically faced because of slavery, Sims said.
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” Biden said during the legislation signing ceremony on Thursday. “They don’t ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them.”
What is the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act?
Senate Bill 474, first introduced on Feb. 25, received bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, had introduced the House version of the bill, which passed resoundingly with 415 representatives’ approval on Wednesday. The Senate passed the bill with unanimous consent a day earlier.
The act amends a section of the United States Code to add Juneteenth to the list of “legal public holidays.”
When would the holiday go into effect?
June 19 falls on a Saturday. In such a case, federal employees would normally receive the Friday a day before off. The legislation did not explicitly mention when the holiday observance should start.
However, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has announced most federal employees can observe the holiday and take the day off this Friday.
Government offices are to be closed Friday.