State Watch

40-year march: Only one state doesn’t recognize Juneteenth

Forty years after the first state recognized the formal end of slavery in the United States as cause for an official celebration, President Biden signed legislation Thursday making Juneteenth a national holiday.

The march from unofficial holiday to a formal day off for most federal employees started in Texas, more than a century after Union Gen. Gordon Granger issued an 1865 order freeing the remaining 250,000 or so Black people who were still enslaved in the state, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

It took until 1979 for Texas to formally recognize the holiday, after legislators approved a measure introduced by state Rep. Al Edwards (D), a veteran civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Edwards introduced the bill in the first of his thirteen terms in office.

Gov. Bill Clements (R) signed the measure into law, and Texas celebrated the first Juneteenth holiday in 1980.

In an interview in 2007, Edwards, the son of a minister, compared the Juneteenth celebration to Jews celebrating their escape from enslavement in Egypt.

“This is similar to what God instructed Joshua to do as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land,” Edwards told Yahoo. “A national celebration of Juneteenth, state by state, serves a similar purpose for us. Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That is why we need this holiday.”

Every president since former President Clinton’s administration has taken the opportunity to issue statements or remarks honoring the holiday. And for the last dozen years, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who represents the same Houston area that Edwards represented in the Texas legislature, has introduced a measure in Congress to make the day the nation’s 11th official holiday. 

Other states slowly followed Texas’s lead: Florida adopted a Juneteenth holiday in 1991, Oklahoma in 1994 and Minnesota in 1996. Thirty-one states adopted the holiday between 2000 and 2009, and another 13 did so in the decade that followed. 

Just this year, legislators in Hawaii and North Dakota approved measures recognizing the holiday.

Only six states — Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Washington and Oregon — have made Juneteenth an official state holiday, meaning state workers get a paid day off. That group is likely to grow in the coming years, now that Congress has approved a paid holiday for federal workers too.

Only one state — South Dakota — does not recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or day of observance. And even there, legislators are pushing to add the holiday to the state’s list of formally recognized celebrations.

“We should all be able to celebrate the end of slavery,” said state Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D), who introduced one of two bills to honor the holiday this year. “South Dakota is the only state in the Union that happens to have a 60-foot statue of the Great Emancipator carved into the side of a mountain, so I think South Dakota is a great place to celebrate Juneteenth.”

The South Dakota state Senate approved one of the two measures honoring the date, introduced by state Sen. Jim Bolin (R), earlier this year. But Bolin’s bill did not make it through the state House before session adjourned.

“I was very disappointed when my bill didn’t pass this last time,” Bolin, a retired history teacher, said in an interview Wednesday. “I just thought that, after the tragedy of George Floyd at the end of May of last year, I didn’t want South Dakota to be the last state to [honor the holiday]. Now it’s going to work out that way.”

Bolin’s measure would have made Juneteenth a so-called working holiday, one that did not grant workers a day off. Nesiba, one of six senators who voted against Bolin’s bill, introduced a version that would have granted the day off.

But both men said they expect South Dakota to go along, now that the holiday has been approved unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by a huge and bipartisan margin in the U.S. House.

“I am quite sure that South Dakota will recognize this national holiday as we have other holidays,” Bolin said.


Tags Bill Clinton Joe Biden Juneteenth Sheila Jackson Lee South Dakota Texas
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