What is Juneteenth? Five things to know after push for federal holiday passes Senate

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Juneteenth could become the next federal holiday as a bill backing the effort moves to the U.S. House.

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution to nationally recognize June 19, a day commemorating the end of slavery in this country.

Here’s what to know about Juneteenth and the effort to observe it on the federal level.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth marks the events that unfolded two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender effectively ended the U.S. Civil War in April 1865.

On June 19, Union soldiers came to Galveston, Texas, to share the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation, which declared that enslaved people in Confederate states were free, was actually made in 1863. But back then, the news of slavery being abolished took time to reach Texas and was kept secret by some slave owners, according to the National Park Service.

“Many (formerly enslaved people) left Texas immediately for the North or to search for family in other slaveholding states,” according to the park service. “Even freedom seekers with no fixed destination left their place of bondage, if for no other reason than to grasp freedom for the first time.”

How is Juneteenth celebrated?

Juneteenth has been remembered since the first annual “Jubilee Day” was organized on June 19, 1866.

“The Juneteenth celebration grew during the years following the Civil War, with many formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants making annual anniversary pilgrimages to Galveston,” the National Park Service said.

Traditions — including music, food and religious activities — spread to other U.S. states as Black people moved out of Texas.

“African Americans treated this day like the Fourth of July, and the celebrations contained similar events,” the Texas State Library and Archives Commission said on its website. “In the early days, Juneteenth celebrations included a prayer service, speakers with inspirational messages, reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos, and dances.”

How well is Juneteenth known?

These days, 37% of Americans in a poll reported having “a lot” or “some” knowledge about Juneteenth.

“Another 34% reporting knowing a little about it, while 28% report knowing nothing at all,” Gallup said in results published Tuesday.

Among Black Americans, 69% said they are at least somewhat familiar with Juneteenth, whereas 40% of Hispanic respondents and 31% of white respondents reported having that type of knowledge about the holiday.

Thirty-five percent of Americans believe Juneteenth should be a federal holiday, while 25% say it shouldn’t and the remaining 40% were unsure, according to Gallup.

The results came from a poll conducted May 18 to 23 among 3,572 American adults. The margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points, according to Gallup.

What’s behind the push for a federal holiday?

After Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday starting in 1980, most states have moved to officially commemorate it, CNN reported.

A proposed federal holiday for Juneteenth gained renewed interest after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 drew calls for police reform and an end to racial discrimination.

Proponents of a Juneteenth bill have touted it as a way to grapple with slavery and other painful parts of our nation’s past.

But last year, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, reportedly expressed concerns about the costs associated with federal workers having the day off. After Johnson lifted his objection, it created a path for the bill to move forward in the Senate, CNN reported.

“Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate,” Johnson said Tuesday in a written statement. “While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object.”

What happens next?

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill called the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

The proposal, which calls for making June 19 a federal holiday, now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives, which it is expected to clear, the Associated Press reported.

Then, the bill would make its way to the desk of President Joe Biden, who could sign it into law.

If passed, Juneteenth would join about a dozen other federal holidays, including New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Memorial Day.

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