How Juneteenth became a federal holiday and what it means for workers

June 17, 2021, 5:45 PM UTC

Congress voted Wednesday in favor of making Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday Wednesday, a holiday designated to celebrate the end of slavery. It will be the first new federal holiday introduced since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

The movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday gained traction last year after the murder of George Floyd. The bill led by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was first passed by the Senate this week with no debate after Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin dropped his objection to the bill.

The House passed the bill 415 to 14, with 14 Republicans voting against it. President Biden is expected to sign the bill today. Once the order passes, 2.1 million federal employees across the country will have the day off.

“I introduced this to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of chattel slavery, America’s original sin, and to bring about celebration, crushing racial divide down to a point of unity,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee on the House floor.

More companies give employees Juneteenth off

Last summer, after widespread Black Lives Matter protests brought the topic of diversity and racial equity to the forefront of corporate America, many opted to give employees Juneteenth off immediately, or beginning in 2021. Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Allstate, Altria, Best Buy, JCPenney, Nike, Spotify, Lyft, Zillow, Cisco, Twitter, and Square were among the companies that announced Juneteenth would be a paid day off for corporate employees, and in some cases, retail workers.

Since then, more companies have followed suit. Earlier this month, National Grid, a utilities company based in Warwick, England with operations in the northeastern U.S. announced it would give employees a paid day off for Juneteenth. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday could push even more companies to recognize it as a day off for employees.

The origins of Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated on June 19 by people across many states to commemorate the day when American forces declared that enslaved people in Texas were to be freed. The last enslaved people in Texas weren’t freed until Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and General Order No. 3 transmitted news of the emancipation proclamation to the state on June 19, 1865.

Celebrations for Juneteenth date back to 1866 and started in Galveston, Texas, where General Order No. 3 was issued. The first celebrations were church-based and small but increased in size as time passed. Celebrations have historically centered around cookouts and music, while some also include readings from the emancipation proclamation.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday. Washington D.C. later followed along with 47 states. Only Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington recognize it as a paid holiday.

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