In states where Juneteenth is not yet a day off, activists see a missed opportunity: NPR

Prescylia Mae raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth reenactment celebration in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 2021.

Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

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Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

Prescylia Mae raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth reenactment celebration in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 2021.

Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

When Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year, South Carolina organizer Jamal Bradley was thrilled to finally receive the recognition it deserves. But his enthusiasm for him was quickly disappointed when he learned that state leaders have decided not to follow suit in watching the party.

“It just lets me know there’s still some work to be done in South Carolina,” said Bradley, who has petitioned Juneteenth to become a national holiday.

Also known as “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day”, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and told enslaved African Americans to be free, more than two years after the signing of the proclamation of emancipation. The holiday has been celebrated by many black families for generations, but it started gaining more attention in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Despite federal recognition, some black organizers are starting to see local support can be a more difficult help. While every state has at some point recognized Juneteenth as a day of observance, 26 states have yet to adopt Juneteenth as a paid holiday, including seven former Confederate states, according to the Pew Research Center.

The reasons for the delay vary from state to state. In some places, it is due to the delay of the bureaucracy. In other places, it is due to disputes over when to actually celebrate the holiday.

Likewise, there are a number of implications. On a practical level, the lack of a public holiday means local employees may not be able to take a break to observe Juneteenth. It could also mean that the state government buildings will remain open during the holidays. But for many black activists, the extent to which Juneteenth is embraced by state governments speaks volumes about their progress towards racial justice.

“Our lawmakers are missing an opportunity to prove this state is ready to move forward,” Bradley said.

It could take years for all states to adopt Juneteenth

Bradley believes it is especially important for former Confederate states to recognize Juneteenth. His home state, South Carolina, was the first state to secede from the Union. For South Carolina to officially recognize Juneteenth, Bradley says, would be a milestone for both the state and the nation.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed a bill that offered a floating vacation for state employees to use in Juneteenth. That legislation was advanced by the Senate but has so far failed to clear the House.

“It wouldn’t have completely reconciled what happened, but it would have been a good start,” said Bradley, who has been hosting Juneteenth celebrations in the Columbia capital for the past five years.

He hopes South Carolina will eventually adopt Juneteenth, but believes it could take years.

Some activists want Juneteenth to be the same as July 4th

Doris Moore Bailey of Lakeland, Florida believes it’s time Juneteenth was treated like the 4th of July.

Florida is also yet to designate Juneteenth as an official state holiday, in part due to a controversy over which day to commemorate: June 19, or the day the enslaved people in Florida learned they were emancipated. A Juneteenth state vacation bill died after some historians argued that the state should instead honor Florida Emancipation Day. A Union general read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee on May 20, 1865.

“We have two days of Independence, June 19 and July 4, one liberated the people and one liberated the land,” Bailey said.

Since 1992, she and former state representative Dr. Alzo Reddick have worked to establish Juneteenth as an annual tradition in her city. Three decades ago, her event drew fewer than 50 people. Over 300 residents attended this year.

Despite growing popularity in Lakeland and throughout Florida, Bailey says he still struggles for the support of the city’s leaders. The city has publicly proclaimed June 19 as Juneteenth Day in Lakeland, but it has yet to be recognized as an official holiday.

Mayor Bill Mutz said it was not considered a public holiday because the city calendar is scheduled a year in advance, but that Juneteenth was “certainly something we can see in the future.”

But Bailey believes there is still work to be done for non-African American lawmakers to take Juneteenth more seriously and faster.

“It can still create divisions,” he says. “They won’t do a heavy lift to make it the same as July’s Forth. The challenge is this is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s how I see Juneteenth’s journey.”

Establish traditions for future black generations

So far, Alabama has only adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday for this year, but whether this is going to be a permanent policy is ultimately up to the state legislature. For Unique Morgan Dunston, a state-recognized Juneteenth is an opportunity to tell a more accurate and complete portrait of American history.

Growing up in Marshall County, Ala., Dunston never knew or had the opportunity to celebrate Juneteenth. Still, it was surrounded by Confederate feasts, statues and customs.

It wasn’t until 2020 that Dunston said he understood Juneteenth’s significance. He is now working to help raise awareness about the holiday and organize celebrations for his community.

Having Juneteenth recognized at all levels of government can be especially significant in places like Marshall County, Dunston says, where black residents make up less than 3 percent of the population.

“It’s weird, Juneteenth looks new, but we’re talking about something that happened in 1865,” Dunston said. “But I like that kids know what Juneteenth is and don’t have to learn it as adults like I had to.”