Congress and President Joe Biden acted with unusual swiftness this week in approving Juneteenth as a national holiday, a move that sent many states scrambling to clarify their policies on the observance with less than a business day’s notice.
Nearly all states recognize Juneteenth in some fashion, at least on paper. But most have been slow to move beyond proclamations issued by governors or resolutions passed by lawmakers. At least seven states have designated it in law as an official paid state holiday — Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
This year alone, legislation to formally recognize Juneteenth died in Florida and South Dakota and is stalled in Ohio, all states controlled by Republicans. But even in Maryland, where Democrats control the Legislature, a Juneteenth bill passed one chamber only to die in the other.
The effort recalls the drawn-out battles over recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the last time the federal government designated a new holiday. That legislation, finally passed in 1983, scheduled the holiday to begin three years later. It set off bitter debates in the states over whether to enact their own holidays.
President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday that was passed by Congress to set aside Juneteenth, or June 19, as a federal holiday. Only a handful of states headed into Thursday’s signing of the federal Juneteenth law with the paid holiday on the books to be celebrated in 2021. The governors of Washington, Illinois and Louisiana, by contrast, all signed more recent laws that were set to kick in for 2022, adding to the muddled rollout.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced that state offices would be closed for a half-day on Friday, only a few days after he signed Juneteenth legislation. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed government offices in his state as well, though the new holiday would not have been observed until 2023, since June 19 falls on a Sunday in 2022.
In another twist, many states have laws with provisions that automatically recognize all federal holidays — even those not named in state statute.
Such was the case in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine issued his Juneteenth statement on Thursday evening. In the manner of a hastily called school snow day, he noted the state’s automatic observance of all federal holidays and declared that most government offices would be closed Friday.
DeWine’s statement pertaining to the holiday included: “Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. (On Thursday), President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth, June 19th, a federal holiday. This action by the president also makes Juneteenth a state holiday, pursuant to Ohio Revised Code 124.19, which defines state holidays as including ‘any day appointed and recommended by the governor of this state or the president of the United States.’”
“Pursuant to that statute, I also appoint and recommend Juneteenth, June 19th, as a state holiday. I also support legislative efforts to commemorate Juneteenth in the Ohio Revised Code,” explained DeWine.
State Sen. Hearcel Craig, a Columbus Democrat who is Black, is sponsoring the bill making Juneteenth a paid state holiday in Ohio.
He said Friday that it remains essential that lawmakers pass the legislation even after the federal holiday was declared. His bill cleared the Ohio Senate unanimously last session, but time ran out for its consideration in the House.
“This is the party of Lincoln,” he said of Republicans who control both Ohio’s legislative chamber. “My hope and expectation is that Ohio will choose to be a leader in the quest to honor Black history and the movement toward a more equitable world. And that’s not hyperbole. Ohio can and should be a leader with regard to this issue. It concerns not only African-Americans but all Americans. Put simply, Black history is American history.”
Locally, Fayette County is in the process of figuring out details surrounding Juneteenth. Fayette County Commissioner Dan Dean explained there have been several questions popping up as to whether county employees will be off work, paid for the holiday, etc.
For the most part, county offices were open on Friday. The holiday will further be discussed on Monday during the commissioners’ meeting as more information and guidance will be gathered by that time.
“As soon as we get guidance, we’ll make sure all the employees either get a day off or are paid for the time,” said Dean.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice held a last-minute virtual press conference after Biden’s bill-signing Thursday to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday. New Jersey passed a Juneteenth holiday in September.
Minnesota has recognized the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth since 1996, but the statute only obligates the governor to issue a proclamation each year honoring the observance. That’s a common situation in the U.S.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, has called for making it an official state holiday. The idea has not gotten traction so far in the Minnesota Legislature, the only one in the nation where Democrats control one chamber and Republicans control the other.
Members of its People of Color and Indigenous Caucus are now drafting legislation patterned on the new federal law.
What is this federal holiday, and what is its history? Here’s a look:
The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Laura Smalley, freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that the man she referred to as “old master” had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling the people he enslaved what had happened.
“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said at the time. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”
Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. That was more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia.
Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. Its observance has continued around the nation and the world since. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.
WHAT DOES ‘JUNETEENTH’ MEAN?
The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day.
Often celebrated at first with church picnics and speeches, the holiday spread across the nation and internationally as Black Texans moved elsewhere.
The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.
The national reckoning over race helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors. Bipartisan support emerged as lawmakers struggle to overcome divisions that are still simmering following the police killing last year of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Supporters of the holiday have worked to make sure Juneteenth celebrators don’t forget why the day exists.
“In 1776 the country was freed from the British, but the people were not all free,” Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. “June 19, 1865, was actually when the people and the entire country was actually free.”
There’s also sentiment to use the day to remember the sacrifices that were made for freedom in the United States — especially in these racially and politically charged days. Said Para LaNell Agboga, museum site coordinator at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin, Texas: “Our freedoms are fragile, and it doesn’t take much for things to go backward.”