This June 17, 2020, photo, shows a statue depicting a man holding the state law that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Galveston, Texas. The inscription on the statue reads "On June 19, 1865, at the close of the Civil War, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston stating that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was in effect. That event, later known as "Juneteenth," marked the end of slavery in Texas. Celebrated as a day of freedom since then, Juneteenth grew into an international commemoration and in 1979 became an official Texas holiday through the efforts of State Representative Albert (AL) Edwards of Houston." (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
June 19, 2020
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, U.S. Rep. Pramilla Jayapal, and hip hop artist Pharrell Williams all agree on at least one thing: Now is the time to make June 19, or Juneteenth, a national holiday.
Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 when slaves in the last southern state to be emancipated, Texas, learned from a Union general speaking in Galveston that they were finally free.
Now, in the midst of a national protest movement calling for an end to systemic racism in the criminal justice system, the idea of celebrating this moment in history is gaining momentum among political leaders, activists, and corporate head-honchos alike.
In the past week, Nike, Target, and The New York Times announced they were making Juneteenth a paid holiday, while Google and Amazon and other companies told employees to cancel meetings on Friday and use the time to learn and reflect.
Already, 46 states officially recognize the date. It's also been a paid holiday in Texas since 1980, and Virginia and New York are following suit.
Now activists are proposing something more ambitious: making Juneteenth a federal holiday on par with Independence Day or Labor Day.
Several petitions to make it a national holiday are circulating, including one from the Black Lives Matter Global Network and another from lifelong advocate Opal Lee out of Fort Worth, Texas, which has reached over 300,000 signatures.
Lee, 93, remembers when Juneteenth was celebrated like other major holidays in the small town where she grew up.
"I was born in Marshall, Texas, and we would go to Juneteenth at the fairgrounds," she told Cheddar. "It was a big to-do. It was like Thanksgiving or Christmas or something like that."
That changed when Lee and her family moved to Fort Worth, where their home was vandalized and torched by white supremacists looking to scare them away. Her family survived the incident and stayed in the city, but it wasn't until Lee started celebrating as an adult that it regained prominence.
"I've been doing Juneteenth for 40 years in my neck of the woods," said Lee. "I even advocate for having us celebrate Juneteenth from the 19th to the Fourth of July. You do know slaves weren't free on July Fourth?"
Indeed, Juneteenth's close proximity to the Fourth of July is part of its appeal. Dating back to before the Civil War, the patriotic summer holiday has alienated Black Americans who understood they were left out of the phrase "all men are created equal."
The famous author Frederick Douglass set the example in 1852 when he declined to speak before a group of abolitionists in Rochester, New York on July 4 and instead moved the speech to July 5, calling the holiday a reminder to Black Americans of "gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
"At nearly every turn, you had African Americans, whether they're laypeople or their active abolitionists, kind of calling out this hypocrisy, and I think that's what we're seeing today," said
Dr. Michelle Commander, curator and associate director at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
For Hella Creative, a collective of Bay Area artists and professionals that formed the week after California's shelter-in-place went into effect, the upcoming July Fourth holiday was their main inspiration for promoting Juneteenth.
"We wanted to be contextual in our celebration and embrace a moment that we feel has needed to be embraced for quite some time," said Miles Dotson, a member of the collective.
The idea came up at a virtual happy hour earlier in the month, and within 48 hours, the group launched a website calling for a weeklong celebration from June 13-19 and federal recognition.
This won't be the first time in recent history that advocates for Juneteenth have brought their fight to Capitol Hill.
At the same time that members of Congress were pushing to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday — a process that ultimately took 15 years of pitched legislative fighting — others were calling for Juneteenth to gain similar status.
What's different this time, Dotson said, is the sudden acceptance of major corporations.
"If people like Jack Dorsey and others can decide that this is a holiday, it shouldn't be a far-reaching step for our politicians to do so as well," he said.
Recent protests and the impact of coronavirus have also accelerated and intensified calls to recognize Juneteenth. Often, Commander said, advocacy for the lesser-known holiday coincides with moments of national instability.
"Juneteenth's popularity seems to have a great resurgence at these moments of great social strife," she said. "If you look at the long history of the celebrations, you have these ebbs and flows that align with moments of social strife and economic disaster."
What makes this moment different, she added, is a growing historical awareness brought on by easy access to information.
"Social media plays a huge role, and the way that these kinds of histories are distributed," Commander said. "People can get a quick two-minute news story about Juneteenth, about slavery."
Lee also drew a line between coronavirus and the growing awareness of history that is the backdrop to recent protests.
"I'm going to give the virus some credit," she said. "People had to stay home. They had to slow down. They began to think and read and see what we've been saying."
Coronavirus, of course, will make celebrating Juneteenth this year a little difficult, but that isn't stopping Lee. On Friday, she'll be leading a caravan of cars through the streets of Fort Worth that's exactly two and a half miles long, in honor of the two and half years slaves had to wait in Texas to learn they were free.
In the meantime, she urges everyone to sign her petition to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
"We're asking you to tell people to sign the petition so that we can say to Congress it's just not one little old lady in tennis shoes walking up and down the streets and highways."