CIVIL-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS in the United States have long pushed to make “Juneteenth” (a portmanteau of “June” and “19th”) a national holiday. Their wish was granted this week when President Joe Biden signed a bill marking Juneteenth National Independence Day at the federal level. Many non-essential services will close, and government employees will get paid holiday. Stockmarkets usually stop trading on holidays too, but as June 19th this year is a Saturday they would have been shut anyway. Mr Biden called the recognition one of the greatest honours he will have as president, but it is not without its critics. The legislation unanimously passed the Senate, but 14 House Republicans voted against it. And America is increasingly divided by views on race. So what, exactly, is the significance of Juneteenth?

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On January 1st 1863, in the middle of America’s civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation liberating all slaves living in Confederate states. But the order carried little weight in Texas, where there were few Union soldiers to enforce it. It took more than two years for the news of the mandate to reach slaves in Galveston, Texas. On June 19th 1865, two months after the war had ended, a Union general rode in to inform the city that all enslaved people were henceforth free. It would be an additional six months before slavery was prohibited in the whole country (Lincoln had exempted the slave-holding states that had stayed in the Union from his order), but for generations African-Americans have celebrated the end of slavery on Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is now America’s 12th federal holiday, but it was already widely observed. Celebratory barbecues and picnics have taken place for as long as the occasion has been recognised. In 1980 Texas, rightfully, became the first state to mark the date formally. This week Hawaii and South Dakota became the 49th and 50th, respectively. Protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in May 2020 gave Juneteenth greater salience. And companies increasingly recognise it too. Some, such as Twitter, Nike and Vox Media, have made it a paid holiday for their American employees (this year, many are observing it on Friday 18th). A national “Miss Juneteenth” pageant was also launched in 2020, bringing together black girls and women to celebrate their shared heritage.

Mr Biden’s recognition of Juneteenth comes amid a fierce national debate over how America reckons with racial injustice. Republican legislatures in at least five states have passed bills intended to ban what they erroneously consider “critical race theory”, restricting how teachers can discuss American history and current events. Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona who voted against the bill Mr Biden signed this week, called Juneteenth “more debunked Critical Race Theory” and claimed it was “tear[ing] us apart”. Most of the remaining 13 House Republicans who opposed the legislation thought the term “Juneteenth National Independence Day” was divisive. But for many Americans, the federal recognition of Juneteenth is long overdue.