Miami lawmaker bears witness as Biden makes Juneteenth a federal holiday

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For years, Miami Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson commemorated Juneteenth with her Congressional Black Caucus colleagues, and Black celebrities frequently joined lawmakers in Washington to celebrate.

But this year, Wilson, South Florida’s only Black member of Congress, celebrated by watching President Joe Biden sign a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was added in 1983.

“I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have had as president,” Biden said Thursday as he signed the bill into law.

Wilson and a group of lawmakers attended a White House ceremony Thursday afternoon marking the occasion. The June 19th holiday will be observed Friday, the White House confirmed. Most federal employees will have the day off with less than a week’s notice after the U.S. Senate unexpectedly passed the bill through a fast-track procedure on Tuesday, and the House of Representatives followed suit on Wednesday.

“It kind of spread around. After George Floyd and the reckoning on race, justice and equality the new buzzwords are equity and inclusion,” Wilson said, when asked why the bill sped through Congress in less than a week. “I think all of those determinants helped to put this bill on the fast track to the White House. There weren’t many Republicans opposing the bill so it was just a matter of putting it in the hopper and putting it first.”

Wilson said she found out about the White House ceremony late Wednesday night.

Juneteenth commemorates the day Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, two months after the Confederate army surrendered in Virginia and nearly three years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday, which marks the end of slavery in the United States, has long been celebrated in Texas but didn’t achieve wider national recognition until recently.

“When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock and often to acknowledge our history.”

Miami-Dade employees off Monday

Miami-Dade County employees will have a paid holiday on Juneteenth for the first time this year, though the county will give employees a day off on Monday instead of Friday. Other Miami-Dade municipalities like North Miami Beach and South Miami also recently recognized Juneteenth as an official holiday.

But the federal designation will bring wider attention.

Wilson, a former educator, said the bill’s passage ensures that slavery’s place in American history won’t be forgotten or glossed over in classrooms.

“That’s the thing with holidays, everyone knows about them,” Wilson said, adding that holidays like King’s birthday and Veterans Day ensure that important contributions to American history are remembered. “I think Juneteenth will play that same sort of role. Everyone will understand and appreciate what Juneteenth stood for, what Juneteenth means about slavery.”

Most Republicans and all Democrats in Congress supported the effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The U.S. Senate acted quickly when Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson announced Tuesday he would not block quick consideration of the bill like he did in past years, enabling it to pass without a formal vote. A day later, the U.S. House passed the bill on a 415-14 vote. All 14 dissenting votes were from Republicans, though every member of Congress from Florida voted in favor.

Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn led efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and lawmakers across the ideological spectrum, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, co-sponsored the legislation.

A national debate in history

The new holiday comes as a national debate on teaching racism and critical race theory makes its way into political messaging. Earlier this month the Florida State Board of Education, on the request of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, voted to approve a rule that bans the teaching of critical race theory and “The 1619 Project” in classrooms across the state. Critical race theory is an academic perspective arguing that racism is a social construct that continues to be embedded in legal systems and policies. The 1619 Project is a New York Times-developed historical project and school curriculum arguing that slavery was central to the United States’ national narrative.

Wilson said teachers will continue to discuss racism and the way it continues to affect African Americans in classrooms regardless of directives from the state, and recognizing Juneteenth will bring attention to racial inequalities that continue to exist. Wilson said state directives could prohibit the purchase of certain materials but she’s “not really concerned” that the new rules will stifle classroom discussions.

“Teachers who mean well will teach about the ways racism has affected African-American people for centuries; that cannot be erased,” Wilson said. “Children are going to ask questions and you’re going to answer them. And when you answer them, that’s part of teaching.”

But while Congress moved quickly to recognize Juneteenth, other legislative priorities that gained prominence after Floyd’s death and nationwide protests are in a holding pattern in Washington. Negotiations continue on bills that would overhaul police practices and expand voting access, though most Republicans are opposed to plans under consideration by the Democratic majority.

Wilson, though, says making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major milestone that should be celebrated.

“I think nowadays there’s more of a reckoning on race than I have seen in my entire life,” Wilson said. “With the murder of George Floyd, so much has happened.”