This holiday weekend marks Juneteenth, a pivotal day in history that has been celebrated for 157 years. Beginning with the earliest celebrations centering around the Black church, Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day and more, has historically been observed to mark the day in which African Americans in Galveston, TX were informed of their freedom via General Order No. 3, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and approximately two and a half months after the end of the Civil War. The day is often marked by music, food, dance and other festive traditions of Black culture.
While it has been celebrated for a long time, just like the idea of African Americans being free, it has taken a little while to "catch on" or be celebrated outside of the Black community, especially on official levels. Case in point, it wasn't until this very year that all of the states in America recognized it as a holiday. Texas was the first to do so back in 1980; then it was slow going such that by 2002, the count was only up to eight states recognizing it; but by 2006 an additional seven states had joined and by 2008, approximately half the states recognized it officially. By 2021, 47 states had recognized Juneteenth formally with several of them designating it as a paid holiday. North Dakota and Hawaii did so in April and June respectively. South Dakota, which had failed (twice) to pass legislatation to this effect, finally did so this past February becoming the last state to officially recognize the holiday.
There's a difference, however, in being "recognized" and being validated. And unfortunately, in America validation often comes with a price tag. Despite it being recognized in all 50 states, it is a legal holiday in only 18 of them. While the bill signed into law affects the federal designation, each state has to individually pass legislation to recognize it and fund it for it to be considered a legal paid holiday. To date, only 18 have done so (Minnesota, however, is not one of those states), allowing the local government as well as companies and organizations in the remaining 32 to decide at their discretion, whether this holiday is important enough to merit financial investment.
The devil, as always, is in the details.
Here in Minnesota, in the House of Representatives, legislation was introduced in March this year and has had its second reading with no action beyond that. Its companion bill in the Senate has been referred to the Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee. The Minnesota State Legislature adjourned on May 22nd without further action, leaving the future uncertain. Five companies--Target, Ameriprise Financial, Best Buy, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank--observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday; several other companies such as Thrivent, Medtronic, UNFI and Land O’Lakes don't offer it as a paid day off, but allow employees to use floating holidays or PTO to take the time off; and some companies like General Mills and Life Time Fitness who don't provide the day off, have events to recognize the day. Hallie Q. Brown Community Center recognized it as an official holiday in 2020, one year before it was signed into law.
While the Emancipation Proclamation declared freedom for enslaved African Americans, it did not mean that Black people were actually free, as is illustrated by the very origin of Juneteenth. But even beyond that two and a half year delay in the message of freedom, some of this country still actively opposed this notion of rights and freedom for all of its citizens. After the Civil War, nine southern states modified their vagrancy laws to specifically target freed African Americans and enacted the Black Codes, establishing a series of laws and measures meant to restrict the freedoms of Black people and maintain as close a system to Slavery as possible.
Consider the insidiousness of the practices put in place. The modifications to the vagrancy laws in Southern states, said that the freed African Americans, who had no property, resources or means; who it had been illegal to educate including teaching them to read, must now find a job and housing immediately or face consequences such as fines or imprisonment. (Note, with no money to pay the fines, they would also end up incarcerated) What makes this so significant is that eight of the nine states allowed convict leasing, a practice by which the state prisons could rent out incarcerated persons for labor; and five of the states allowed them to be used for public works projects. This means that due to these laws enacted in reaction to their freedom, African Americans would often end up back at the same pre-emancipation work but with someone else being paid and the inability to escape to freedom because of imprisonment.
So now you have the former Slave owners, angry at the idea that African Americans were no longer their property, essentially holding the power to put African Americans right back into a Slavery-like system by virtue of the face that they were often the ones deciding if an African American could get a job. Former Slave owners knew that by refusing to hire them, they would often end up in prison and be rented back out to them, often at lower costs than the wages they would have had to pay and the money wouldn't be going to African Americans which made it even better. As if that was not enough, African Americans had to sign year long employment contracts, which if they didn't fulfill, or rather, the former Slave owner said they didn't fulfill, they could again end up in prison and rented back out.
The Black Codes were far reaching, restricting Black persons' right to vote, buy and lease land, own property and businesses, work in professions other than servant or farmer, move about in public, even own guns. While the Second Amendment has been radically misinterpreted by enthusiasts to justify excessive gun ownership, Black people were not amongst those enjoying this freedom. Not only did specific states enact laws to take away their guns, Mississippi and Alabama created volunteer militias specifically tasked with disarming Black people which they often did brutally. Consider that in the context of today's debate.
So the freedom that had been granted, really wasn't. The notion of African Americans being free, much less equal, was so appalling, so antithetical to their belief system that white Southerners were willing to do anything they could to not acknowledge it and even destroy it. What followed was the proliferation of white supremacy and domestic terrorism, both legally and when illegal, ignored, in the form of Jim Crow, lynchings, segregation, etc. The response to this was the Civil Rights movement and years of activism and legislative action to actually realize this elusive dream of freedom that has been a long time deferred. The recognition of Juneteenth as an official holiday is one of the first steps on the path to an actual acknowledgement and full and fair accounting for Slavery and its impact in America.
And so, it is with little surprise, that there is objection by white lawmakers on the most frivilous of basises to furthering this cause, citing everything from the cost of adding another state holiday to the lack of awareness of Juneteenth and its purpose. For example, in Connecticut, which did pass it as a paid holiday, only two legislators voted against it. Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco (R), and Sen. Rob Sampson (R). Mastrofrancesco, said in an interview:
"My only objection is, it’s another paid holiday.” She added that state workers now can accrue 46 paid days off a year—15 vacation days, 15 sick days, three personal days and now 13 holidays. “Nine weeks! I don’t see anyone in the private sector getting that much time off with pay,”
In another example, Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee (R), put money in his budget proposal for the holiday, but it died in the house because Sen. Joey Hensley (R) said in committee that he had asked 100 people in his district and only two of them knew what the holiday was, stating:
“I just think it’s putting the cart before the horse to make a holiday people don’t know about. We need to educate people first and then make a holiday if we need to.”
It's hard to take Mastrofrancesco's objection legitimately when Connecticut's state holidays include Columbus Day, which many people are finally realizing why they shouldn't be celebrating that, and Good Friday which is a Christian observance and a little hard to reconcile with the whole "separation of church and State" provision. It's also interesting to note that Mastrofrancesco did not suggest replacing one of these with Juneteenth or start action to remove them from the list of holidays. With regard to Hensley, leaving aside the fact that it's hard to believe that those 100 don't have at least some knowledge given all the focus and attention around the signing into law last year; according to a Gallup Poll in 2021 year, most Americans DO know about Juneteenth, especially outside of political echo chambers: 72% have at least some knowledge and the more in favor of making it an official holiday than against it with the exception of white adults and seniors (55+).
Yet, there's a simple reason for the lack of knowledge or interest that exists in certain specific sectors, communities and demographics around Juneteenth: In this country we teach about Slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism as the history of Black people instead of the history of White people.
Let's pause for a moment and let that sink in.
We largely learn about history involving members of BIPOC communities as an "add on", often during select months of the year, when specialized books are pulled from shelves, dusted off and used for 30 days before being ignored for another 11 months. We talk about Slavery and Jim Crow as the experience that Black people had and not as the choices that white people made. We look at the scars, injuries and murders as the things that Black people endured instead of analzing the brutality that white people inflicted. We look at the actions of Harriet Tubman, John Brown and members of the Underground Railroad as acts of bravery, but not at the racism and corruption of the white people making the laws, knowing they were immoral, unethical and inhuman.
America looks at history, both domestically and abroad, subjectively wherein we can condemn other nations like Germany, South Africa and Russia for the actions, but see our own failings through the lens of "Oops", "We didn't mean to" and "That was the past." And that lack of ability to look objectively at our country, to fully acknowledge the wrongs of the past and their continuing impact in the future, to fix as a part of our history, our failure to live up to our ideals and continue that with taking the lessons from them and committing to do better is why we remain stuck in debates about whether or not a holiday should be celebrated, much less if a people shold be free.
Juneteenth isn't just a Black holiday and isn't merely about Black people celebrating their freedom, Juneteenth is about the ending of an unjust institution, sanctified by our government that brutalized, demoralized and marginalized a segment of our citizenry; it is about our country taking a huge leap forward in the acknowledgement of the inhumane practices and denial of inalienable rights to a part of our country. It is a celebration of America learning to be our better selves.
And it should be celebrated, by everybody, and made into a legal holiday in all 50 states. It represents an opportunity to come together as one country and heal from the past. Celebrate this moment in time where America stood up, as a country, for what's right and said in a single voice (or at least in a majority one) that we would no longer languish in the quick sands of racial injustice but rather would lift ourselves up onto the solid rock of brotherhood, that we would shake the foundations of our nation until "until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Juneteenth is an AMERICAN holiday that should be celebrated by every American because it signifies our recognition, as a country, as the UNITED States, that American Slavery was wrong and unjust and as a people, we will never allow that to happen, and we will make right the wrong that has been done to our BIPOC communities so that we can move forward, together, as these UNITED States of America.
For more information and details on the history Juneteenth and other significant periods of history, please visit our Addressing Systemic Racism page on our website.