Zelitra Peterson-Traylor – “an amazing self-taught artist” – showcased her creativity at the Juneteenth celebration hosted by LeMoyne-Owen College. (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

by Curtis Weathers —

When I heard the news last Thursday that President Joe Biden had signed legislation making June 19th, Juneteenth, a national holiday I was shocked, but in a good way.

It caught me totally by surprise.  I did not see it coming!  

The LeMoyne-Owen College Juneteenth celebration was an empowering event. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

What was even more shocking was the overwhelming support in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. The House voted 415-14 to send the bill to the president.  

The Senate passed the bill June 15 under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements. No one did, however.  

Amazing! 

The end result, the United States Congress passed, and then President Joe Biden signed, a law enacting Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Miracles can still happen I suppose.

Heartfelt exchanges accented the LOC Juneteenth celebration. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

President Biden noted himself the overwhelming support for the bill from lawmakers in both parties.

I would have expected more Republicans to be adamantly opposed to such legislation, given the political environment we tend to operate in these days.   

Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Montana), one of the few Republican lawmakers who opposed the effort, said creating the federal holiday was an effort to celebrate “identity politics.”

But what is Juneteenth and why is it so important? 

Simply put, it was the day, June 19,1865, Major General Gordon Granger informed plantation owners in Galveston, Texas, that Abraham Lincoln had declared the last of enslaved Black people free under the terms of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.  

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States and has been an African-American tradition since the late 19th century. 

So, the Congress of the United States has established June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day ⸺ a U.S. federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States of America.  

It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. 

Most states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. 

Before this new legislation, Juneteenth was a paid holiday for state employees in only four states, Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.

At a time when Black Americans continue to face systemic challenges, such as the racial wealth gap, police brutality, disproportionate incarceration and persistent health disparities, making Juneteenth a national holiday may seem like a small gesture.

But this is really a BIG DEAL folks…albeit long overdue!

Getting to this point took years of hard work and longstanding efforts by activists, several legislative attempts and, of course, the momentum generated by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Congress has, in various years, passed resolutions honoring Juneteenth, but it was not until last year that lawmakers considered making it a national holiday.

So, to all those people who have worked tirelessly over the years to make the Juneteenth national holiday a reality, CONGRATULATIONS!

  People like Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr. M.D., founder, and chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF) and Lula Briggs Galloway, who spent decades lobbying for national recognition of Juneteenth. 

Both Dr. Myers and Galloway are deceased, but their legacy is now complete.  

President Biden said that signing this legislation into law June 17 will go down as “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency.

“We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation’s first African-American and first female vice president.

The front lawn at LeMoyne-Owen College provided a Juneteenth showcase for budding talent. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

After hearing about the bill, I could not help but think about Nikole Hannah-Jones and her Critical Race Theory (CRT) journey with the 1619 Project.  

CRT opponents I am sure are banging their heads against the proverbial wall after hearing the news that this legislation had passed with such overwhelming congressional support.  

Juneteenth celebrations will provide yet another platform to engage the American people in dialogue about race relations in this country.

Critical Race Theory discussions will surely be at the forefront of those discussions.  

I hope it encourages our schools and communities to find creative ways to teach and celebrate Juneteenth in dramatic and exciting ways.  

I hope it ignites deep, probing discussions of all kinds, exploring various viewpoints, beliefs and perspectives.  

I hope this newfound collaboration amongst our legislators on this topic will inspire them to do more to address the systemic racism that continues to wreak havoc in our society.  

In a statement celebrating this momentous occasion, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), one of the bill’s authors, said it best:

“For far too long, the story of our country’s history has been incomplete as we have failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery.

“Today’s Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom,” Markey said.

A faith-inspired mime by a troupe of young performers accented the Juneteenth celebration at LeMoyne-Owen College. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

While the Juneteenth National Independence Day federal holiday is long overdue, it is still right on time.   

Good job United States Congress. Well done!

Footnote:  The 14 House Republicans who voted against the bill are Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Doug LaMalfa of California, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tom McClintock of California, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Chip Roy of Texas and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)