Just days ahead of June 19th celebration, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to make Juneteenth, which celebrates the emancipation of formerly enslaved African Americans, a federal holiday on Tuesday.
While Juneteenth commemorates the abolishment of slavery, the date does not mark the end of legal slavery in the United States but instead the date when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom, and being the last place to then abolish the act altogether.
After the Mexican-American War slavery began to become more prevalent in the newly acquired western state, which the United States expanded control of after Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and after winning the war between the neighboring countries. Initially, the United States declined to incorporate it into the union, largely because northern political interests were against the addition of a new slave state.
More isolated geographically, planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought enslaved people with them, increasing by the thousands the enslaved population in the state at the end of the Civil War. Although most lived in rural areas, more than 1,000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.
The bill must still pass in the House but this marks a great step forward as the bill itself has bipartisan support after meeting some resistance in the past. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) sponsored the bill and has gained support from Republicans, chiefly Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the lead GOP sponsor, said in a statement. “The passage of this bill represents a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality. I thank my colleagues in the Senate for their support, and my fellow Texans who have been celebrating this important holiday for more than a century.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was viewed as the key holdout, announced earlier Tuesday that he had dropped his objection to passing the bill, clearing its path in the Senate.
“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson had floated swapping Juneteenth with Columbus Day on the federal government’s list of holidays.
It is important to note the reason for Senator Johnson’s objection is not due to any disrespect for the holiday itself but that the taxpayer funding of “time off for federal employees,” as the holiday itself is important to the story of this great nation. Johnson had suggested switching Juneteenth with Columbus Day on the federal government’s list of holidays.
Juneteenth marks the date where this country, after fighting the bloody Civil War, finally took a giant leap forward to living up to the words of the 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…”
These words are the embodiment of this holiday as hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died in order to make true this statement for all Americans, no matter their race.
In today’s cultural climate, it is perhaps more important than ever that we as Americans heed these words and continue to strive toward making them as true now as they were then, for the liberties and rights of all Americans is not something that it is fought for and won once, but must be continually maintained as long as there is air in our lungs.