(WASHINGTON) – Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff paid a surprise visit to school children at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to talk about the significance of Juneteenth as the nation observes the new holiday federal on Monday.
The children and their families greeted Harris, the first black woman to serve as the nation’s second-highest leader, with cheers as she entered the room.
“Happy Juneteenth, young leaders,” a smiling Harris told the children.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas were the last to learn that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, freeing them from slavery . The date gained federal holiday status last June, when President Joe Biden signed into law the June 19 National Independence Day Act.
“Today is a day to celebrate the principle of freedom,” Harris told children ages 4 to 10, “and think about it in terms of historical context, knowing that black people in America weren’t free. for 400 years of slavery, but then at the end of slavery, right?…when the Emancipation Proclamation took place, that America really had to think about the definition of freedom…”
“I would say it is our divine right to have freedom,” she added. “It’s your birthright to have freedom, then during slavery freedom was taken. And so we’re not going to celebrate having received what God gave us anyway” , as the group expressed agreement, with one person saying, “Amen.”
She continued, “Let this day be a day to celebrate the principle of freedom, but to speak about it honestly and with precision, both in the context of history and current application. That’s what I’m thinking today. »
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, when it became “the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution,” according to the museum’s website.
After their remarks, the second couple spoke with children while they worked on coloring books.
Monday’s surprise appearance follows Harris and Emhoff hosting the first-ever June 19 celebration at the vice president’s residence, she tweeted on Sunday.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Juneteenth than by spending time with the community,” Harris said, sharing a photo of R&B duo sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey, who spoke at the event.
Biden released a statement Sunday afternoon calling Juneteenth “a day of profound weight and power that reminds us of our extraordinary ability to heal, to hope, and to emerge from our most painful moments into a better version of ourselves.”
He added: “It’s a day to celebrate, educate and take action.”
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation recognizing June 19 as a paid holiday.
ABC News’ Molly Nagle contributed to this report.
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