The scene at the White House on Thursday might have been hard to fathom just one year ago.
A diverse crowd of lawmakers, activists and community leaders — including pop icon Usher, with whom many photos were taken — gathered in the East Room to witness President Joe Biden sign into law a new federal holiday: Juneteenth, which on June 19 commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
With coronavirus infections near record lows in the U.S. amid a full-bore vaccination campaign at all levels of government, few members of the indoors, in-person crowd were seen wearing masks.
“We are gathered here, in a house built by enslaved people,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold the title. “We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday.”
“We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” Harris said.
As she spoke, the president stepped off the podium and approached the front row, then knelt down to embrace Opal Lee, the 94-year-old Texas activist credited as a driving force behind the push for the new holiday.
“I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have had as president,” Biden told the crowd before signing the bill into law.
The 11th national annual holiday was established just two days before Juneteenth itself, and less than three weeks after the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. It also came on the heels of the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man whose caught-on-tape murder in police custody triggered a nationwide eruption of civil unrest.
In mid-June of 2020, all of those factors — Tulsa, Juneteenth, the waves of protest and the Covid pandemic — posed problems for then-President Donald Trump, who had come under fire for announcing plans to hold a rally in Tulsa on the holiday.
“I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal after moving the date of the rally. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”
The contrast between Trump’s final Juneteenth as president and Biden’s first could hardly be more stark. It illustrates not only the seismic changes at play in the nation and how they shaped the present, but also the difference in how the two presidents have approached issues of race.
The path to a federal holiday
Juneteenth celebrates the date in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas finally heard that they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had issued more than two years earlier.