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US President Joe Biden is making Juneteenth a federal holiday. So what is it? And why is it so significant?

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 18/06/2021

Juneteenth. Jubilee Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day.

It's an occasion known by many names, and now June 19 has got a new title to add to the list.

US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have signed a bill into law making June 19 — or 'Juneteenth', as it's commonly known — a federal holiday in the United States.

So what is it? And why is it so significant?

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — and as you've probably guessed by now, it comes from a blend of the words June and nineteenth.

That's the date in 1865 that enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas were told that they were free.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until some two years later — after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Laura Smalley, who was freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, said the man she referred to as “old master” had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling the people he enslaved what had happened.

“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Ms Smalley said in a 1941 interview.

“I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”

So why now?

The national reckoning over race helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr Day was created.

Bipartisan support emerged as politicians struggled to overcome divisions still simmering following the police killing last year of George Floyd, alongside the wider Black Lives Matter movement.

The date was further catapulted into the headlines last year when former US president Donald Trump announced he would hold his comeback rally on the same day in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site of one of the worst episodes of racist violence in America's history.

Mr Trump later announced he would move the event to June 20 out of respect, but not before senator Kamala Harris accused Mr Trump of throwing "white supremacists" a "welcome home party".

How are people reacting?

After signing the bill, known as the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, Mr Biden made the point that Juneteenth "doesn't just celebrate the past — It calls for action today".

"Juneteenth marks both a long hard night of slavery subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come," he said.

"[It is a reminder of the] terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."

It was a sentiment echoed by Martin Luther King III, who said Juneteenth should be "both a day of celebration and day of education of our nation's true history".

However, while the Senate passed the bill by unanimous agreement, in the House, 14 Republicans voted against it.

That included Texas politician Chip Roy, who objected to the use of “independence” in the holiday's name.

“This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the colour of one's skin," he said in a statement.

How is it celebrated?

The vast majority of states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation recognising June 19 as a holiday or observance.

For many, that means a day off to mark the 156th anniversary of the holiday with festive meals and gatherings, parades and marches.

The signing of the bill will now formalise that across the country.

However, while non-essential federal government offices and many financial institutions are closed for business on federal holidays, private employers aren't necessarily required to follow suit.

ABC/wires


Video: Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday (Associated Press)

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