Photo of the Juneteenth flag (blue and red with a white star).

A History of Juneteenth

by Samira George

(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted with permission.)

The Establishment

Also called Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day, June 19 has come to commemorate the end of U.S. slavery and is most known as Juneteenth.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took several years for enslavement to end in the most remote Confederate state, Texas.

It is a lesser-known fact that the emancipation applied only to the Confederate states — the 11 states that seceded from the Union in a states’ rights plea to ensure they could keep Black people as slaves.

The last place in the Confederacy still enslaving Black people was Galveston, Texas, where Confederate soldiers held a firm grip. Some historians theorize that the news of emancipation was either withheld or Confederate soldiers with guns forced continued enslavement.

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers brought the news to enslaved Black Texans that they could go free. Newly freed Black Americans celebrated their liberation on that very June 19 in 1865. Since that day, the tradition has grown and includes Black community gatherings and political rallies.

Yet, while Juneteenth is a major historical event in African American history, it has largely been excluded from classroom history books and the American education system as a whole.

“We’re still feeling the after effects of Black codes, Jim Crow, and exclusionary laws. That hasn’t changed for us,” Washington State Rep. Melanie Morgan said. “I’m excited that this will be a holiday that will start educating people and educating our youth.”

Morgan sponsored House Bill 1016 to make Juneteenth a state legal holiday, effective in 2022. This means it will be a paid day off for state employees and some state contract workers, except for school district employees.

The application of this law is limited to state employees. It is up to private employers to decide what paid days off, if any, they give employees. Among Washington’s big businesses, Amazon does give its employees Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Microsoft has taken a different approach, making it a “day of listening” for employees.

President Joe Biden announced he will declare Juneteenth a federal holiday. The prior efforts to make it a federal holiday included four congressional bills and a 2018 Senate resolution.

Several municipal lawmakers in Washington, including the Metropolitan King County Council and the Port of Seattle, made Juneteenth a holiday for employees in recent years.

Morgan wants the whole state of Washington to participate in celebrating Juneteenth, and she hopes eventually to look around and see people across Washington gathering together for picnics or family gatherings and block parties. “I see that there are parts of the state that have been celebrating this, but now it’s going to be on a wider scale. I see people already planning things now and I’m excited,” Morgan said.

Morgan said HB 1016 faced little pushback in the Washington House and Senate, passing with overwhelming support. “I wasn’t really having any backlash,” Morgan said.

Morgan had tried to pass a similar bill in 2020. No legislators came out against the policy of making Juneteenth a holiday, Morgan said, but Republicans opposed it on the grounds that the state budget they were passing in 2020 could not afford more paid time off for employees. So, Morgan brought it up again as the state Legislature made a new biennial budget.

Morgan’s hope in passing a statewide law is to acknowledge past traumas in African American history and garner the same level of attention as the Fourth of July.

“It’s important that there be a reconciliation in the harm that was done to a whole demographic group of people that built this country, and so they (Black Americans) deserve to have their history remembered,” Morgan said, “and they deserve to have their history recognized.”

What Morgan wants people to understand about Juneteenth is that to African Americans, it holds the same national importance as the Fourth of July. “I hope that we celebrate this as a Black African American independence day. It’s our Freedom Day or Jubilee Day. It’s such a great day that we can’t even call it by one name,” Morgan said.

It’s Morgan’s hope that Washington continues to pass more laws that support Black and oppressed communities.

“The state of Washington is quickly moving towards being an antiracist state,” Morgan said.

After the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter rallies and protests have put external pressures on state governments to make a push to be more culturally inclusive and recognize important historical events.

This year, Washington joined the ranks of five other states making Juneteenth a paid holiday instead of a day of remembrance. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth as an official paid holiday. In 2019, Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania signed legislation that designated June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day.” In 2020, state governors of Virginia, New York, and New Jersey signed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a paid day of leave for state employees.

On Thursday, June 18, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday

Prior to Biden’s signature, South Dakota was the only state that did not recognize Juneteenth in any way. All other states had either officially honored the day or made it a state holiday.

Hawaii and North Dakota had recently recognized Juneteenth; North Dakota’s bill was signed by its governor on April 13, and Hawaii’s Legislature sent a related bill to its governor to sign in late April.

What Is a Holiday?

The U.S. has several different classifications of holidays. State and federal holidays have to be approved by the legislature. All employees at the state or federal level get the associated days off, but private companies get to choose whether or not to give the days off.

There are 10 federal holidays — soon to be 11 with Juneteenth — which mean employees across the country who work for the federal government get the day off and all federal offices, including post offices, are closed.

State holidays vary. With the addition of Juneteenth, Washington recognizes 12 holidays for state employees. Juneteenth and Native American Heritage Day, November 26, are Washington’s only two holidays in addition to the federal holidays.

Unofficial holidays are days like Groundhog Day, International Women’s Day, Father’s Day, and even Halloween. These holidays aren’t recognized at the state or federal level, and most businesses don’t close for them.

Washington Celebrations

Red poster advertising the first annual Juneteenth celebration at the Seattle Center in 1980.
The first annual Juneteenth celebration at the Seattle Center was held in 1980. Image courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives (under a Creative Commons license).

1865: Juneteenth is celebrated for the first time, when Union Army General Gordon Granger announced that slavery had been outlawed in the country.

1890: The first observation of Juneteenth in the Pacific Northwest is held in Kent, sponsored by the Sons of Enterprise.

1980: The first Juneteenth celebration at the Seattle Center is held, sponsored by what became the Central District Chamber of Commerce.

2002: The Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant begins in the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington. Each year, a young Black woman from the area is chosen based on events like a group dance routine, a talent competition, and an interview with the judges. Miss Juneteenth participates in community events around the Tri-Cities throughout the year.

2012: The Kent Black Action Commission issues a proclamation focusing on the importance of Juneteenth in Black heritage and the City of Kent; city celebrations are hosted at the Kent Senior Center.

2018: The City of Renton commemorates Juneteenth for the first time.

2020: Juneteenth is celebrated across the U.S. more widely than previously recorded; the Juneteenth Foundation attributes this in part to the death of George Floyd and the wave of anti-racist protests that followed. Seattle saw many celebrations, including the introduction of the Freedom March and Celebration. The Juneteenth flag was flown in Federal Way for the first time in the city’s history, and Yakima declared the week of June 15 as Juneteenth Freedom Week.

2021: Over 50 public (both in-person and virtual) events are scheduled for Washington celebrations, from Bremerton to Seattle. State parks in Washington are free to visit on June 19.

Samira George is a reporter for Real Change. Samira is driven by a passion for community journalism. She enjoys writing on subjects her community members feel strongly about and helping to elevate those voices. In her free time, you might find Samira hanging from a rock or backcountry skiing.

Arts Editor Henry Behrens contributed to these reports.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Office Holidays (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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