Saturday is Juneteenth. What's the holiday all about?

Chelsey Cox
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday to recognize June 19, or Juneteenth, as an official holiday. It passed with unanimous consent without a roll call vote or objections from the chamber.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act heads to the House for approval. If it passes and President Joe Biden signs it into law, every federal employee will be granted a day off to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, discovered President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved African Americans in rebel states 2½ years earlier. The day is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day..

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.,, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reintroduced the bill in February to designate Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Markey introduced it last June in the wake of the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – all Black people who died at the hands of police or armed white citizens. The 2020 bill did not progress to a vote. 

More:Juneteenth is more popular than ever. This year's celebrations come amid a culture war.

The Juneteenth flag commemorates the day that slavery ended in the U.S. -- June 19, 1865, several years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a statement, Markey said the U.S. has "failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery."

"Today’s Senate passage of our legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom," he said.

Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia observe the date in some manner. Texas was first to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980.

The Senate bill passed as Congress grapples with legislation to protect the rights of minority voters while trying to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to shore up accountability for law enforcement. 

In addition, some state legislatures are trying to ban discussions about systemic racism, the legacy of slavery and critical race theory.  

But annual Juneteenth celebrations will proceed as normal this year, some of them virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The day is typically commemorated with parades, concerts, beauty pageants and educational activities throughout the country.