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The History of Federal Holidays and the Road to the Nineteenth | by Keani Vierra | Voterly | June 2021

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President Joe Biden hands over a pen after signing the National Independence Day Act of the Sixteenth, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

The past year has been one of political strife in America, especially for those in the black community. From a deadly pandemic to rising violence against minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum that has led to the recognition of a defining date in the history of African Americans. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law a new US federal holiday, the 16th National Independence Day. Each year, the holiday will be celebrated on June 19, commemorating the day slaves were freed in Texas, the last and largest state in the union to still enforce slavery. This day has been celebrated within the black community for decades, but will now be shared with the rest of the country as a celebration among Americans.

The first federal holidays were established by Congress in 1870, granting paid time off to federal workers on New Years Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Ten years later, George Washington’s birthday was added, followed by Decorating Day (now Memorial Day) and Labor Day. In the early 1900s, Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) was added, followed by Inauguration Day, which is only celebrated in the District of Colombia, then Columbus Day. The most recent holiday added was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, another nod to black history in America. However, like June 19th, it went a long way to gain recognition from the civil rights leader. The debate lasted 15 years, and first proposals came in to honor Dr. King’s memory after his assassination in 1968. In November 1979, the House of Representatives came close to passing a bill that would designate January 15 as a federal holiday. However, the bill fell short of four votes and did not achieve a two-thirds majority. The momentum only accelerated and the campaigns to recognize Dr. King grew. The House reviewed the issue on August 2, 1983, and finally passed legislation that would make the third Monday in January a federal holiday in his honor. Then came a lengthy debate in the Senate, before finally passing the bill in October. President Reagan signed the bill in November 1983.

38 years later, the 16th National Independence Day was established. This holiday honors June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and free all slaves. Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, on January 1, 1863, he had done so in the middle of the American Civil War. While it was the first step in freeing all slaves, it would become a process in the following years. After the Union won the war in April 65, months later the federal troops regained control and enforced what was proclaimed two and a half years earlier by President Lincoln. Celebrations It immediately took place among the newly freed slaves, but not without recourse. Violence by whites against blacks increased for years, especially in the southern states. The celebrations continued even in the 20th century. Blacks treated the day like July 4, with small events in communities across the country. Some events in the early 20th century would include speakers, a prayer service, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, games, rodeos, and dances. In many parts of Texas, freed men and women even bought land, calling it “emancipation lands.” Celebrations of the 19th century declined until the mid-20th century during World War II, followed by the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1970s, the holiday was revived in some Texas communities, inspiring Houston Democrat Al Edwards to propose that June 19 be declared a holiday in the state of Texas. The law was passed by the state legislature in 1979 and signed into law by Governor Clements, Jr. Since then, 48 states and Washington DC have declared June 19th a holiday, but only a few have recently recognized it as a paid holiday for the state employees. .

According to the Congressional Research ServiceThere are technically no national holidays, in which all 50 states are required to have time off on these days. Instead, the precedent is for Congress and the President to declare federal holidays in which only federal employees will be affected. The states are then left to establish their own version of the commemoration. Most states, however, recognize these federal holidays as their own, creating a national conversation about what is being honored. That sentiment is what prompted many black activists to fight for June 19th federal recognition. Decades have passed, but the cause really gained momentum after violence against the black community in the last year. Texas Senator John Coryn and Texas Representative Sheila Jackson introduced a bill to declare June a holiday shortly after George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020. 155 years after the first celebration and 41 years after being declared a state holiday in Texas. , the United States Senate voted unanimously to declare June 19 National Independence Day. A day later, on June 17, 2021, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted 415-14 in accordance with the Senate, and President Biden signed the bill.

This landmark legislation is an example of how the representatives you vote for can have a lasting impact on our country. June 19th will not just be a day off for federal workers, it will be a day of conversation, reflection, and celebration. One that will continue for decades to come.

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