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Juneteenth Is Now A Federal Holiday, Commemorating Slavery's End

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the White House today, President Biden signed a bill that establishes June 19 as a federal holiday. Juneteenth, as the day is known, celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We 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 yet.

SHAPIRO: As NPR's Adrian Florido reports, the day has gained wider recognition since the nation's recent movements for racial justice.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in secessionist states, on January 1, 1863. But across the Confederacy, many slave owners kept this news from their slaves for more than two years. On June 19, 1865, a Union general rode into Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and of slavery. Here's Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee reading that general's announcement on the House floor yesterday.

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SHEILA JACKSON LEE: The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

FLORIDO: Black Americans started celebrating the anniversary of that date the very next year, and they have ever since with parades, festivals and prayer gatherings. Patricia Davis researches African American cultural memory at Northeastern University and says these community celebrations have been an important way for Black Americans to keep the memory of Juneteenth alive.

PATRICIA DAVIS: That's the way most people get their history, you know, and particularly history that is not friendly to the idea of American exceptionalism.

FLORIDO: The holiday only began enjoying broader public recognition recently amid the nation's increased attention to issues of racial justice, police killings of Black people and conservative efforts to limit how race is taught in public schools.

DAVIS: All these events that have led to what people refer to as a racial reckoning have led to a greater awareness of histories that have not been centered in formal educational channels. They've also inspired kind of a more critical orientation toward accepted historical narratives.

FLORIDO: Davis said Juneteenth has benefited from this. Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill making Juneteenth the 11th federal holiday on the calendar. The House approved it Wednesday. And today, President Biden signed the bill into law in the East Room of the White House.

SEAN JONES: It's a big deal that he's signing it. It is absolutely a big deal.

FLORIDO: Sean Jones is president of the Atlanta branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which helps organize an annual Juneteenth celebration. More Americans will now know about this overlooked chapter in Black history, he said.

JONES: But we know that the fight and the mission for full acceptance in this country isn't over - because that's what Juneteenth is; it is a recognition of the sacrifice and the commitment to full citizenship in this country by our ancestors. And millions of us take that seriously, and we live it every day.

FLORIDO: This weekend, people across the country are preparing their own Juneteenth celebrations. In Pasadena, Calif., Jessica Gipson and her sister Lilo Love are hosting a backyard party for family and friends. They started celebrating Juneteenth last year amid the protests following George Floyd's murder.

LILO LOVE: I feel like I'm celebrating the freedom of my ancestors.

JESSICA GIPSON: Our ancestors celebrated that day, and that is something we want to start and to continue.

FLORIDO: Gibson says their party is not just fun and relaxation.

GIPSON: We do take a moment of silence, prayer, memories. We talk about it all.

FLORIDO: The sisters said they hope the new federal holiday will encourage other Americans to do the same.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.