The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to create a federal holiday commemorating Juneteenth, which until now has been the unofficial fete marking the end of slavery in the United States.
The measure cleared the Senate by unanimous consent Tuesday after a Republican in the chamber ended his objection. With the House passing it in a 415-14 vote, the bill now heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.
Most US states recognise Juneteenth as a holiday or officially observe the day, but the bill passed by Congress would make Juneteenth the 12th US federal holiday — and the first new one in 38 years.
The commemoration has taken on renewed resonance over the past year with millions of Americans confronting the country’s living legacy of racial injustice.
“Juneteenth is as significant to African Americans as it will be to Americans because we too are Americans, and it means freedom,” House Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee told her colleagues, describing slavery as “America’s original sin.”
Juneteenth National Independence Day is commemorated on June 19 to celebrate the day in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans learned that they were free.
A Union Army general in Galveston, Texas — where president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had yet to be enforced nearly three years later — announced that slavery was abolished in Texas and across the country.
“This day reminds us of a history much stained by brutality and injustice, and it reminds us of our responsibility to build a future of progress for all, honoring the ideal of equality that is America’s heritage, and America’s hope,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Lawmakers broke into applause and cheers when the bill passed.
Jackson Lee, who represents a Texas district, and the state’s senior US Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, will be in Galveston on Juneteenth to mark the historic occasion.
“There’s no better time than the present, particularly given the strife we’ve seen, the level of distrust, for example, between law enforcement and the communities they serve, than to acknowledge our nation’s history and to learn from it,” Cornyn told reporters.
“Acknowledging and learning from the mistakes of the past is critical to making that progress and becoming a more perfect union.”
Democrats and Republicans have struggled to unite on legislative issues in recent months and years, with political divisions impacted by debates over race, immigration and other social issues.