Juneteenth is finally a US national holiday—several years late

Juneteenth in New York City, 2020
Juneteenth in New York City, 2020
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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US Congress this week overwhelmingly backed a proposal to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and president Joe Biden signed it into law today (June 17). In a rare show of bipartisan support, the bill passed by 415 votes to 14; the meager opposition came entirely from Republican representatives. The law goes into effect immediately.

Juneteenth will have the same status as other widely observed federal holidays, and as such, it will not be mandatory in the vast majority of US states for employers (other than the federal government itself) to honor any of them.

How Juneteenth is currently observed

On June 19, 1865, a general in Texas announced freedom for the last enslaved people in the US, paving the way for the eventual end of the practice in the former, now defeated, Confederacy later that year.

US activists have campaigned for many years to have the important anniversary commemorated with beers and barbecue, and hopefully a degree of solemnity, every summer. Many US companies, including Nike, JCPenney, Target, and—full disclosure—Quartz, already give their US employees a day off for Juneteenth. Last summer’s antiracism protests encouraged some firms to observe the holiday and use it as an opportunity to discuss race and inequality.

What US states already observe Juneteenth?

Forty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia, already acknowledge Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday, though it’s not mandatory for employers. The two that don’t acknowledge Juneteenth are Hawaii, which has at least passed a bill to recognize it as a holiday, and South Dakota, which refuses to participate at all.

But until Congress stepped in at federal level, there wasn’t an official national day to commemorate this significant moment in American history.

Emancipation Day already exists

Across the world, and particularly in countries where where people were enslaved, an equivalent Emancipation Day is already celebrated as a national holiday to mark the end of the two-century trade in human beings abducted from western Africa. Emancipation Day, not necessarily on or around June 19, is a holiday in Canada, South Africa, and in many Caribbean countries. The US is a little late to the party.