JOE BIDEN has signed a bill making June 19 a public holiday in honour of the official end of slavery in the United States.
The passing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is a landmark moment for a country addressing its chequered racial past and, rather aptly, is the first new US holiday since Martin Luther King Day.
The date has long been a day of celebration and commemoration for Americans, especially African Americans, and will now be afforded public recognition.
Speaking at the signing event, President Biden said: "I've only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honours I will have had as president.”
The name ‘Juneteenth’ is a merging of June and 19th, the date in 1865 when General Gordon Granger of the Union Army rode into Galveston, Texas, to make a historic proclamation.
“The people of Texas,” Granger said, “are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free”.
Granger continued: “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labour.
“The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Though a landmark event, the executive order to free America’s slave population had in fact been signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years before General Granger arrived at Galveston, and so the proclamation was already late, and in a number of instances, even later being put into effect.
As historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner points out in her essay, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” this was just the beginning of the long march to freedom for the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves.
Reeling from the radical shift in power dynamics, masters were faced with the decision of when to inform their slaves that they were free, and where possible, of how to transition to an employer-employee relationship.
It was not uncommon, according to Turner, for slave owners to postpone notifying their slaves of their new status until after the harvest.
Such was the resistance to the change at the time that the ex-Confederate mayor of Galveston City defied the new laws by forcing the freed former slaves back to work in the fields.
The new laws were a monumental moment in American history, and the most significant stride the fledgling nation had taken towards realising the ambitions of its Founding Fathers - as outlined in the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
While an important step forward, the proceeding years of Ku Klux Klan white supremacist violence against black citizens, segregationist Jim Crowe laws, and the struggle for civil rights during the 1960s, were a far cry from the inalienable rights mandated in the Declaration.
Nevertheless, upon receiving news of their freedom, the now free citizens were overjoyed and celebrated in the streets, and in the years that followed, up to six million African Americans migrated from the rural south to cities in the North, West, and Midwest in what became known as the Great Migration.
America’s black population continued to celebrate June 19, the day of their emancipation, which became known as Juneteenth.
As segregation became more pronounced at the beginning of the 1900s, these celebrations became less and less public, meaning black people had to commemorate their emancipation from slavery in private, often only among one another.
Incidentally, this occurred alongside a wellspring subcultures around black identity, including the explosion of literary and musical talent that made up the Harlem Renaissance, the heir to modern jazz and hip hop, as well as the social and political progress that came with the Black is Beautiful and Civil Rights movements.
American life has been greatly enriched by this inheritance and the new holiday offers the nation a day to come together and reflect on the African American experience that gave rise to it.