Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduces historic legislation making Juneteenth an “official” federal holiday in America
ABOVE: U.S. President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
With the stroke of a pen, a major piece of legislation was signed into law that will forever commemorate the freedom journey and uplift of African Americans in this country.
On June 17, 2021—two days before the holiday that many African Americans in this country celebrate called Juneteenth—President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, which went into effect immediately.
As a result of this new legislation, the federal government has joined 47 states in recognizing Juneteenth as the 12th federal holiday. Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota remain the only states who do not acknowledge Juneteenth as a significant holiday.
Juneteenth (June 19th) is a day that has been celebrated by countless African Americans for over 156 years and has been referred to by man as ‘America’s second Independence Day.’
The quest to make Juneteenth a national holiday has been a long journey.
The state of Texas was the first state in the country to make Juneteenth an official paid holiday in 1980, thanks to the efforts of former State Representative Al Edwards. Since then, other states have either acknowledged Juneteenth in some capacity or made it an official state holiday.
The primary catalyst who introduced this bill and spearheaded the efforts in Congress to help make Juneteenth a federal holiday was Houston’s own U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Jackson Lee was the first and only Congressional leader to introduce this legislation.
According to representatives at the Congressional Research Service (CRS)—who works exclusively for the U.S. Congress to provide policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate regardless of party affiliation—they were not able to find any legislative efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday using the resources at their disposal. They reached out to subject matter experts in African American history in the History and Genealogy section of the Library of Congress and were not aware of any legislative efforts before 1951 to the present that reveal any legislative efforts were brought forth and introduced.
According to Jackson Lee, she had been working on this effort since 2005 and has been introducing resolutions since 2013 to acknowledge Juneteenth; however a resolution was only limited to acknowledging Juneteenth, not recognizing it as a national holiday.
“Juneteenth is the living symbol of Lincoln’s promise that this nation, under God, would have a new birth of freedom,” said Jackson Lee. “I applaud my House colleagues for the swift passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, companion legislation to H.R. 1320, which I introduced to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of chattel slavery, America’s Original Sin, and to celebrate the perseverance that has been the hallmark of the African American struggle for equality. I am deeply grateful to have been aided in this effort by Senator Markey of Massachusetts, my senior senator, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, my colleagues in the House who cosponsored this landmark legislation, and all the organizations, groups, and individuals who worked through the years to bring us to this day.”
The push to make Juneteenth a national holiday picked up steam after the tragic death of George Floyd and after Ms. Opal Lee (referred to as the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’) showed up at the U.S. Capitol in 2020 with 1.6 million petitions demanding that Juneteenth become a federal holiday. Jackson Lee greeted Ms. Lee at the capitol and took those petitions requesting that Juneteenth become a national holiday and went to work.
The influence of Ms. Lee on this effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday is significant and her fingerprints are all over it. In 2016, at the age of 89, this former educator and lifelong community activist walked all the way from her home in Fort Worth, TX, to the U.S. Capitol to get Juneteenth named a national holiday.
On top of that, Ms. Lee has annually walked 2 ½ miles on the official Juneteenth holiday to commemorate the time that it took for enslaved people of African descent in Galveston, TX, to find out the news that freedom had been granted them via the Emancipation Proclamation.
Jackson Lee states that she was inspired to push this forward, primarily because of the dedication and persistence of Ms. Lee, but also because of the mentors who influenced her, such as former State Rep. Al Edwards who led the charge to make Juneteenth a state holiday in Texas.
According to Jackson Lee, she introduced the bill and was eventually approached by Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts who asked for permission to take the bill to the Senate and he was subsequently joined by fellow Texan and Republican Senator John Cornyn and other supportive senators, who passed the bill unanimously in the Senate.
Jackson Lee states that this bill got passed in warp speed, which is rare, and is the first and singular bill to discuss and chronicle slavery in the national arena.
“I took this bill that I gave birth to and pushed to make it a federal holiday that people can use as an opportunity to finally discuss the brutality and legacy of slavery in this country,” said Jackson Lee. “I want America be able to recognize her original sin and acknowledge it and rise above it. I believe this bill to create this Juneteenth federal holiday will now propel the George Floyd Act, a federal push to protect voting rights and the commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.”
Juneteenth is one of the oldest and most widely known recognized African American holidays in this country commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. to the 200,000 enslaved people of African descent in the state of Texas on June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth.
In commemorating Juneteenth, many African Americans gather together and honor the day similar to the ways we celebrate Independence Day; by listening to live music, having community gatherings, youth events, cookouts, religious events, hosting educational sessions; and much more. It is a day that can be likened to having a big family reunion, where members of the African American family, both immediate and extended, can create a dedicated tradition where they come together annually to remember their storied past, have fun and celebrate every generation of people that make up the African American community – old and young.
Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, the state of Texas, as a part of the Confederacy, was resistant to the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the state of Texas due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order in the state. The Emancipation Proclamation had originally taken effect on January 1, 1863, but word didn’t reach Texas until two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, and more than two years after the proclamation was issued. Union Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops eventually arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 18, 1865 and delivered a decree concerning the emancipation of Africans held in slavery in the South. General Granger read General Order No. 3 in Galveston proclaiming, “Slaves are free” on June 19, 1865. One of General Granger’s first orders of business in Galveston was to deliver a decree concerning the emancipation of Africans held in slavery in the South, and to read to the people of Texas, General Order No. 3, which began most significantly with:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
When African Americans heard this unexpected news coming from the lips of General Granger, their reactions ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. Juneteenth eventually spread to Houston and to more than 26 other states at the time, where it began to be celebrated annually.
“Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” said Jackson Lee. “But it must always remain a reminder to us all that liberty and freedom are precious birthrights of all Americans, which must be jealously guarded and preserved for future generations.”
So now, Juneteenth has become a national holiday. The message of how African Americans were able to press forward past slavery and celebrate their freedom should never be watered down or forgotten. Every American should use this holiday as a teachable moment for all generations.
This newly minted federal holiday will be celebrated on a grander scale, and at age 94, Ms. Opal Lee was able to celebrate on June 19, 2021, with a fresh new perspective on this country, as she was able to take another 2 ½ mile walk to commemorate Juneteenth—this time, however, she took that walk on the first nationally recognized Juneteenth holiday she helped advocate for.