With a speed that took a few by surprise, President Joe Biden signed legislation into law Thursday, June 17, making Juneteenth, or June 19, a federal holiday.

Because the new federal holiday falls this year on a Saturday, it is being observed at the federal and state level Friday, meaning many federal and all Missouri state offices were able to close Friday, June 18, and employees of those offices were able to have an additional day off.

Because of the short notice, the U.S. Postal Service said it will will continue normal operations Friday and Saturday this year, according to a statement on its website.

State offices able to close Friday included Missouri State Highway Patrol driver examination locations, the Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Senior Services and Department of Conservation, although conservation shooting ranges remained open.

Some regional city offices were also closed Friday, including Kansas City's City Hall and Kansas City Health Department.

The new holiday also closed Missouri courts, pushing a hearing on whether to expand Medicaid to Monday, June 21.

Juneteenth is now the 12th designated federal holiday. This is the first new federal holiday designated since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.

Juneteenth marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, received news of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, two years after President Abraham Lincoln first issued the proclamation. It’s celebrated as marking the end of slavery in the United States.

The holiday legislation passed this week with overwhelming support in both chambers of Congress. The Senate approved the bill unanimously Tuesday, June 15. The House passed it in a 415-14 vote, with only Republicans voting against.

The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day. In Missouri, Juneteenth has been recognized as "Emancipation Day" under state statute since 2003. While the day was designated to "provide an opportunity for the people of Missouri to reflect upon the United States of America's passion for freedom as exemplified in the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation, and to reflect upon the significance and particularity of the Emancipation Proclamation and its role in ending slavery in the United States," it has not been a paid holiday in the state.

Local celebrations & reactions

In Liberty, Clay County African American Legacy Inc. has held Juneteenth celebrations for more than two decades. CCAAL is an organization that honors accomplishments and contributions of African Americans in Clay County.

“We are going to tie our Juneteenth celebration in with the state’s bicentennial,” said Cecelia Robinson, CCAAL’s historian. “The event will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug 21.”

Robinson said the ceremony will become a bicentennial freedom celebration. Two markers will be unveiled – the first is to honor Ruth Moore, who served as chair of the 1954 Liberty Parks and Recreation Board, and for whom a Liberty park is named; and Sam C. Houston, the first African American city councilman and founder of the Liberty Juneteenth celebration.

“In 1989, Liberty was the first suburban city in the Northland and first suburban city in the state of Missouri to host a Juneteenth celebration. For over two decades, the Clay County African American Legacy Inc. has hosted Liberty Juneteenth celebrations throughout the city: Bennett Park, Ruth Moore Park, Garrison School Cultural Center, St. Luke AME Church, and in recent years, at the Kansas City Shoal Creek golf clubhouse,” she said.

Robinson said she wants people of all ethnicities to join in and see this as a bipartisan celebration.

“We are all interconnected,” she said. “I am happy to see Juneteenth become a holiday. People need to be reminded of the freedoms we all have.”

State Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Democrat representing House District 17, which includes Liberty, said emancipation was a defining moment in the nation’s history.

“The recognition of Juneteenth is a step forward in celebrating the freedoms that God has bestowed upon all people,” he said. “The desire to be free is a passion that burns in the hearts of all God’s children. For my part, I’m pleased to help recognize the importance of that moment with our brothers and sisters.”

Clay County Western Commissioner Jon Carpenter said the county commission did not opt into a Juneteenth closures this year, but individual elected county offices can make that choice as the assessor and collector did.

“We will have to make an official resolution to join in and make Juneteenth a paid holiday,” the commissioner said.

Rep. Josh Hurlbert, a Republican representing Missouri House District 12, which includes Kearney and Smithville, said he is glad to see the holiday recognized at the state and federal level.

"It was time," he said, adding Juneteenth is an important day in history, especially to African Americans, and should be recognized by all Americans.

"It's the history of America," he said.

The holiday legislation passed this week with overwhelming support in both chambers of Congress. The Senate approved the bill unanimously Tuesday night, and the House passed it in a 415-14 vote. The only votes against the bill came from Republicans.

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