Juneteenth to be celebrated with an eye toward more meaningful change

Juneteenth, the date slavery was abolished in the United States, is now a federal holiday.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law Thursday, and the new federal holiday will be referred to as Juneteenth National Independence Day, honoring June 19, 1865, the day the final slaves in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

"Great nations don't walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger," said President Biden.

This federal holiday recognizes the past, and it comes at a time when Black Americans continue fighting for progress in the future. 

For years, Black communities organized and celebrated Juneteenth events in Tampa Bay.

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"We were forced to come to this country and forced to work for nothing and we are celebrating freedom from that," said Jeanie Blue, a St. Pete resident and former organizer of Juneteenth celebration in St. Pete.

From community leaders and activists in St. Petersburg to the president of Hillsborough County’s NAACP, Black residents shared their thoughts on the moment.

"I’m excited about that. I think it’s a wonderful idea. I’m so glad that it passed," said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP. "I think it moves this country in a step in the right direction."

Many echoed those thoughts of moving on a new path forward.

"This is a first step of a marathon. I think we have a long way to go," said Jabaar Edmond, of 8 Kings Collective and a Juneteenth event organizer in St. Pete.

The recognition is a start, but some said there are other ways to make meaningful change.

MORE: Biden signs bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

"We’re still waiting for the George Floyd Policing Act to be passed. We’re still waiting for justice for Black farmers to compensate us for Black land laws," said Erica Hall of the Florida Food Policy Council. "The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, those things are critical in the Black community. So this is a start, but by no means am I satisfied."

Many schools don’t teach about Juneteenth. State Senator Randolph Bracy wants to change that with legislation in Florida after a Juneteenth bill failed in Tallahassee this year. Community leaders said it’s important to know the past and to learn from it.

"Everyone should know about their history, their heritage, where they’re coming from and what their ancestors went through because it molds us and shapes us and it makes us a stronger person," said Lewis.

Many hope Juneteenth becomes a day of service and a learning opportunity, and some hope it will spark something even more powerful.

"You can go to Tampa, you can go to all these different cities where there’s a little Havana or a little Chinatown. But this Juneteenth, hopefully, grows to the point where the Deuces is our little African-American village, all along there are Black businesses and it thrives that way," said Harold Bryant Jr., of Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete and a Juneteenth event organizer in St. Pete.

Juneteenth is now the country's 12th federal holiday, and the first new one since Martin Luther King, Junior Day was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. 

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day — on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.