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What is Juneteenth and why has Biden just made it a federal holiday?

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By AP
President Joe Biden after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021, in Washington.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery, saying he believes it will go down as one of the greatest honours he has as president.

Biden signed into law a bill to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 12th federal holiday. The House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to send the bill to Biden, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously the day before.

"This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take," Biden said.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered.

That was also about 2 and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.

It's the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. One of the federal holidays, Inauguration Day, happens every four years.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day — on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.

'Beginning of change'

Biden noted the overwhelming support for the bill from lawmakers in both parties. He had run for president promising to unite the country and work with Republicans, but his first major legislation to provide more COVID relief to American consumers and businesses was passed along party lines and he has struggled to unite lawmakers to support a major public works bill.

"I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another," Biden said.

Biden signed the legislation surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. He was introduced by Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation's first African-American vice president.

Black Americans rejoiced Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday, but some said that, while they appreciated the recognition at a time of racial reckoning in America, more is needed to change policies that disadvantage too many of their brethren.

“It’s great, but it’s not enough,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City. Grant said she was delighted by the quick vote this week by Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday because “it's been a long time coming.”

But she added that “we need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don't regress any further. That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time.”

Community organiser Kimberly Holmes-Ross, who helped make her hometown of Evanston, Illinois, the first U.S. city to pay reparations, said she was happy about the new federal holiday because it will lead more people to learn about Juneteenth.

But she would have liked Congress to act on anti-lynching legislation or voter protections first.

“I am not super stoked only because all of the other things that are still going on,” said Holmes-Ross, 57. “You haven’t addressed what we really need to talk about.”