The History of Federal Holidays and the Road to Juneteenth

Keani Vierra
Jun 19 · 4 min read
President Joe Biden hands out a pen after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The past year has been one of political strife in America, especially for those in the Black community. From a deadly pandemic to the increased violence against minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained great momentum leading to the recognition of a defining date in Black America’s history. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law a new U.S. federal holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day. Each year the holiday is to be observed on June 19th, commemorating the day slaves were freed in Texas, the last and largest state in the union to still enforce slavery. This day has been celebrated within the Black community for decades, but will now be shared with the rest of the country as a celebration among Americans.

The first federal holidays were established by Congress in 1870, granting paid time off for federal workers on New Years Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Ten years later, George Washington’s birthday was added, followed by Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) and Labor Day. In the early 1900s, Armistice Day was added (now Veterans Day), followed by Inauguration Day which is only celebrated in District Colombia, then Colombus Day. The most recent holiday to be added was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, another nod to Black history in America. However, like Juneteenth, it was a long road to gain recognition of the civil rights leader. The debate lasted 15 years, proposals first flooding in to honor Dr. King’s memory after his assassination in 1968. In November of 1979, the House of Representatives came close to approving a bill that would designate January 15th as the federal holiday. However, the bill fell short of four votes, failing to achieve a two-thirds majority. Momentum only picked up and the campaigns to recognize Dr. King grew. The House revisited the issue on August 2, 1983, and ultimately passed legislation that would make the third Monday of January a federal holiday in his honor. Then came a lengthy debate in the Senate, before finally passing the bill in October. President Reagan signed the bill into law in November of 1983.

38 years later, Juneteenth National Independence Day has been established. This holiday honors June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and free all slaves. Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier on January 1, 1863, he had done so in the middle of the American Civil War. While it was the first step in freeing all slaves, it would become a process in the following years. After the war was won by the Union in April of ’65, months later the federal troops took back control and enforced what was proclaimed those two and a half years prior by President Lincoln. Celebrations immediately took place among the recently freed slaves, but not without recourse. Violence by White people against Blacks heightened for years, especially in southern states. The celebrations continued still, into the 20th century. Black people treated the day like the Fourth of July, with small events in communities all over the country. Some events in the early 1900s would include speakers, a prayer service, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, games, rodeos, and dances. In many parts of Texas, freedmen and women would even purchase land calling it “emancipation grounds.” Celebrations of Juneteenth declined into the mid-1900s during World War II, followed by the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1970s, the holiday was revived in some communities throughout Texas, inspiring Houston Democrat, Al Edwards, to propose June 19th be declared a holiday in the state of Texas. The act was passed by the state legislature in 1979, and signed into law by Governor Clements, Jr. Since then, 48 states and Washington D.C. have declared Juneteenth a holiday, but only a handful just recently recognized it as a paid holiday for state employees.

According to the Congressional Research Service, there is technically no such thing as national holidays, in which all 50 states are bound together to have time off on these days. The precedent, instead, is for Congress and the President to declare federal holidays in which only federal employees are affected. States are then left to establish their own version of commemoration. Most states do, however, acknowledge these federal holidays as their own, creating a national conversation around what is being honored. That sentiment is what encouraged many Black activists to fight for the federal recognition of Juneteenth. It has been decades in the making, but the cause really gained momentum after the violence against the Black community in the last year. A bill to declare Juneteenth a holiday was introduced by Texas Senator John Coryn and Texas Representative Sheila Jackson, shortly after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. 155 years after first celebrated, and 41 years after being declared a state holiday in Texas, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to declare June 19th, Juneteenth National Independence Day. A day later, on June 17, 2021, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly 415–14 in agreement with the Senate, and President Biden signed the bill into law.

This historic legislation is an example of how the representatives you vote for can have long-lasting impacts on our country. Juneteenth will not just be a day federal workers have off, it will be a day of conversation, reflection, and celebration. One that will continue for decades to come.

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