Utahns around the state celebrated Juneteenth National Freedom Day, now an official state holiday, for the first time this weekend.
Ogden hosted a major festival in the city amphitheater with live music. On Sunday, Millcreek, staged a music and skate night, featuring local artists. And, in Logan, there was a community barbecue.
But a number of Utah cities, and at least one county and one school district, did not officially join in the celebration. Sandy, Eagle Mountain, Orem and Kaysville cities are among those that have not formally adopted the new holiday. The Beaver County Commission voted in April not to recognize the holiday and the Emery School Board did the same earlier this month.
To be clear, I am not suggesting there is some sort of malice or animosity toward the holiday in these communities. In many instances, the record is unclear why it wasn’t adopted and it would be unfair to paint all of these communities with a broad brush.
In Sandy, for example, spokeswoman Evelyn Everton said the city has a new mayor and three new council members. “It’s something they are looking at but haven’t adopted yet,” she said, although the mayor, Monica Zoltanski, is supportive of the holiday.
When I spoke to her on Friday, Zoltanski said she was scheduled to speak at an event in Sandy commemorating the holiday over the weekend.
Juneteenth marks the day soldiers delivered the news to Texas that slavery had been abolished in the republic — although it has been expanded to commemorate the abolition of slavery nationwide.
It became a national holiday in 2021 and, during the last session, the Utah Legislature was nearly unanimous in approving legislation sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins. It was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox on March 24, making it an official state holiday.
But local governments aren’t bound by that action and that did put councils and commissions on a fairly tight timeframe to make the change to their policies, although most of them did. In Eagle Mountain, spokesman Tyler Maffitt said there wasn’t political opposition to the move, but it was more an issue of timing.
The Kaysville City Council discussed potentially adopting the Juneteenth holiday in two meetings — both held before the Legislature passed the law making it an official state holiday. City staff recommended adding Juneteenth and swapping it for Columbus Day, but department heads reported their employees opposed changing the calendar and the council unanimously rejected any change to the schedule.
The Emery School Board had little discussion of whether to adopt the change. Audio of the meeting, first reported by PBS Utah producer Kelton Wells, is mostly members muttering and seemingly reluctant to act. One board member noted that the district got bad publicity when it was slow to adopt Civil Rights Day — he presumably meant Martin Luther King Jr. Day — before the board voted unanimously not to adopt the holiday. Summer vacation for Emery schools started last month.
In the case of Beaver County, commissioners voted unanimously not to approve the new holiday, although their reasons are unclear. Minutes from the April meeting don’t explain the rationale for the vote. Audio of the meeting is not available (even though state law requires it to be) and the commission chairman and county clerk did not return phone calls.
The Box Elder County Commission voted to approve the holiday, but many of the commissioners weren’t happy about it, expressing qualms with giving county employees yet another day off work. They did so, “under duress” but Commissioner Stan Summers — who said he works all but a couple of days during the year — said the decision “doesn’t taste good in my mouth.”
We can, I suppose, give some local governments some degree of latitude this year. Perhaps the quick change was too challenging, even though the law has been on the books for nearly three months now and most local governments managed to accommodate the new holiday.
But Juneteenth and the ending of the darkest chapter in our nation’s history deserves to be recognized and commemorated with reverence and respect. So praise goes to those local governments who appreciated the weight and importance of the day.
And we will be watching those that did not to make sure they join in the observance next year.