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President Joe Biden signed legislation on Thursday establishing Juneteenth as the first new federal holiday in decades, a major symbolic victory that Black activists have sought for years.
"This is a day of profound weight and profound power," Biden said. "A day in which we'll remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take; what I've long called America's original sin. At the same time, I also remember the extraordinary capacity to heal and to hope and to emerge from those painful moments and a bitter, bitter version of ourselves to make a better version of our selves."
Biden said that he hopes by establishing the holiday, "all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we've come, but the distance we have to travel, too."
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It's name is a portmanteau of the date it is celebrated on — celebrated annually on June 19 —and has been recognized by 45 states, to varying degrees.
It marks the anniversary of the date in 1865 when Union soldiers brought word of slavery’s end to the Texas gulf — some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s famed Emancipation Proclamation.
"Think about that," said Vice President Kamala Harris, the United State's first Black vice president. "For more than two years the enslaved people of Texas were kept in servitude. For more than two years they were intentionally kept from their freedom."
The ratification of the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery several months later in December 1865. Junetheenth has been celebrated in Black communities dating as far back as 1866, though it went unrecognized by state governments for more than a century.
Biden said that it is critical that the United States not shy away from the lessons of history, including the most shameful chapters, a message similar to the one he delivered less than a month ago at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre.
"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments," he said. "Great nations don't walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger."
Biden said he believes establishing Juneteenth as a public holiday will be one of the "greatest honors" of his still-unfolding presidency. The Biden administration has sought to prioritize racial equity, both in the composition of high-level staff and in its policy agenda, and made it one of the central tenets of White House strategy.
The bill glided through Congress earlier this week, passing the Senate on Tuesday and the House the day after, a somewhat expected development after generations of inertia.
The legislation garnered overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, though more than a dozen House Republicans voted against the measure.
Juneteenth becomes the eleventh official holiday recognized by the federal government and the first in the 38 years since the adoption of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Prior to the White House signing ceremony, Biden's first public event since returning from an overseas diplomatic trip Wednesday, the Office of Personnel Management announced on Twitter that most federal workers would have the day off on Friday, as June 19th falls on a Saturday this year.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser similarly announced Thursday that the public school system would cancel all classes Friday in observance of the holiday, which is formally named Juneteenth National Independence Day, one week before the end of the school year.