Bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday advances

Juneteenth is currently recognized as an official holiday in a handful of states.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Whitney VanAfern and Brielle Hall march down 500 South in Salt Lake City, during the Juneteenth celebration, on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

A Democratic lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that would make Juneteenth, or June 19, a state holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

State Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the first Black woman to serve in the Utah Legislature, has sponsored HB238, which would make “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” an observed state holiday.

Hollins’ bill comes nearly eight months after President Joe Biden signed a law that recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

“What this bill does is just brings the state in align with what the federal government has already done,” Hollins said.

Juneteenth, also known as June Nineteenth, marks the day when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — to tell enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and that they were free.

The holiday has been celebrated by Black communities across the U.S. since the late-19th century, according to Eric Herschthal, an assistant professor of history, specializing in slavery and abolition, at the University of Utah.

Hollins advocated for the bill during the House Health and Human Services Committee on Monday. It passed the committee on a 10-1 vote. State Rep. Raymond P. Ward, R-Bountiful, the only lawmaker who voted against the measure, recommended that Hollins’ bill include a current holiday to replace to make up for the cost to pay state workers for the day off.

In the wake of racial justice protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was murdered by a white police officer in 2020, more states and businesses have made an effort to officially recognize the holiday. As of last year, Herschthal said, at least 45 states have initiated some attempt to make Juneteenth an official state holiday.

The holiday is currently observed in about 47 states, according to Betty Sawyer, executive director of Project Success Coalition and Ogden NAACP president.

“Right now, we only have four states that have it as a state holiday and a movement is on all across the country to get that passed,” Sawyer said.

In 2016, Utah became the 44th state in the U.S. to observe “Juneteenth Freedom Day,” a result of a 2016 bill sponsored by Hollins and former state Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland.

“It’s great that the legislature is recognizing the importance of slavery and Black history, but I would be wary of assuming that passing this holiday represents significant change,” said Herschthal. He added that more pressing demands made by many Black community leaders have still not been addressed, including substantive police reform, teaching about racism in schools, and Black communities’ concerns about voting rights.

When the U.S. government established Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1984, Utah recognized the holiday as “Human Rights Day.” The state didn’t officially name it Martin Luther King Jr. Day until 2000, making it one of the last states to recognize the holiday celebrating the Black civil rights leader by name.

Utah resident Tamara Stevenson spoke in support of the bill during Monday’s committee hearing.

“Unfortunately, the state of Utah lagged for decades in officially observing MLK day when it was established in 1983, so I request that new history be made today with the easy, swift and unanimous passage of this bill,” Stevenson said.

Last year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s office noted on Twitter that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, and not a state holiday, in Utah to clear confusion after releasing a declaration of the annual celebration.