Biden signs Juneteenth into a holiday, officially giving federal employees the day off Friday

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden Thursday signed legislation making Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in Confederate states, a federal holiday.

"This will go down for me as one of the greatest honors I will have as president," Biden said.

The president signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and key lawmakers in the swift passage of the bill.

"We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration," Harris said.

Harris, the nation's first Black vice president, also the noted the significance of where the bill signing was happening. "We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people," she said.

And Biden praised the country's newest holiday as a way to help heal centuries-old divisions and bring about racial justice. "Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments, they embrace them," Biden said. "In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger."

Holiday for federal workers

The law took effect immediately after Biden's signature, meaning that federal workers will be allowed to observe the occasion ahead of Saturday. "As the 19th falls on a Saturday, most federal employees will observe the holiday tomorrow, June 18th," the U.S. Office of Personnel Management wrote in a tweet.

However, the Postal Service will still deliver mail on Friday and Saturday, according to a statement.

“Unfortunately, it is not possible to cease the operations of the Postal Service to accommodate an observance over the next 24-48 hours," according to the statement.

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Juneteenth marks the day when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were notified of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

While President Abraham Lincoln delivered his proclamation freeing all enslaved people in rebelling states in 1862, Confederate troops and slaveholders in states that had seceded did not observe the proclamation until Union troops arrived to liberate the enslaved people, the last of whom were in Galveston.

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Long observed among Black Americans, Juneteenth has gained higher prominence in recent years after racial justice movements increased interest in the holiday and more states and cities have passed legislation commemorating emancipation.

Swift passage in House and Senate

The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate and reached near-consensus in the House, with 14 Republican lawmakers voting against the bill.

Those lawmakers were: Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.; Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.; Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.; Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis.; Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.; Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala.; Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C.; Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas; Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.; Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.; Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont.; Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas; Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.; and Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga.

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"By making Juneteenth a federal holiday we're recognizing the sins of the past, grappling with them, teaching them and learning from them as we work towards a more perfect union," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a press conference after the Senate passage of the bill.

"It'll be the only federal holiday that recognizes the terrible legacy of slavery as well as the noble truth that none of us are free until we are all free," the majority leader continued.

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"There's nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And it seems to me that this is the most propitious time for us to recognize our history and learn from it," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in remarks about the signing of the bill.

Cornyn noted that Juneteenth has already been observed as a state holiday in Texas since 1980 and that the new federal holiday has special significance in the country as it grapples with its history and ongoing questions of race and liberty.

"But I believe that there is no better time than the present, particularly given the strife we've seen, the level of distrust for example, between law enforcement and the communities they serve, than to acknowledge our nation's history and learn from it," Cornyn continued.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

Michael Collins contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juneteenth bill marking end of slavery in US signed by Biden