Public schools in Washington were closed, embassies shut down and US government employees got an unexpected day off on Friday after the sudden declaration of a federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States.
The unusual swiftness with which the newest US federal holiday was approved by Congress and signed into law by the White House left some Americans in a bit of confusion about what exactly was open and what was not on Friday.
Some parents who did have to turn up at their jobs were left scrambling to find last-minute child care options.
“Dear Families. We will be closed in observance of the Federal holiday, Juneteenth, tomorrow!” was the email message from a Maryland day care center sent on Thursday just minutes before midnight. “Have a great weekend!”
To its credit, parents who went to pick up their children at the facility on Thursday afternoon were told verbally that it would be closed the next day.
President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday making June 19 the 12th federal holiday and the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to mark the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.
Juneteenth commemorates the day — June 19, 1865 — when a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed slaves they were free — two months after the Civil War had ended and 2.5 years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth has long been marked by generally low-key celebrations among Black communities around the country.
It gained a higher profile last year amid a national soul-searching over America’s legacy of racial injustice sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, by a white police officer in Minnesota.
Several major US companies announced last year that were making Juneteenth a paid holiday and the US Congress — not known for moving with alacrity — overcame its bitterly partisan divisions and followed suit this month.
The Senate agreed to make Juneteenth a federal holiday by unanimous consent on Tuesday and the House of Representatives approved the measure overwhelmingly on Wednesday.
It was on Biden’s desk by Thursday and the president announced that it was a federal holiday with immediate effect.
“This is a day of profound weight and profound power, and to remember the moral stain and the terrible toll that slavery took on the country, and continues to take,” Biden said at a White House signing ceremony.
Because of the short notice, Wall Street remained open for trading on Friday but the New York Stock Exchange confirmed to AFP that it was considering shutting down for Juneteenth next year.
The impact of the new holiday was apparent in the nation’s capital.
Streets which had been inching back to normal after a year of coronavirus pandemic isolation were again largely void of commuters Friday morning.
Also Read: Some unknown facts about Juneteenth
Washington public schools were closed, non-essential federal government offices were shut, a COVID-19 meeting of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was put off until next week and courts postponed cases which had been scheduled to be heard on Friday.
US embassies around the world informed visa seekers and others that they would be shut on Friday and consular officials would get in touch next week to reschedule appointments.
“What is open and closed on Juneteenth?” was a headline in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper accompanying a story explaining what was open for business on Friday.
The story reflected, however, some of the uncertainty about the new holiday.
“State offices and schools may be open, but most close,” it said.