Headlines were made over the 45th president’s wanting to hold a Juneteenth commemoration in Tulsa, Okla., the site of a notorious massacre of African Americans by whites in 1921.
What is Juneteenth, and is that a holiday?
Juneteenth is a culturally coined term for the celebration of the ending of slavery in the United States. June 19 is the date long associated with this celebration as that is the date in 1865 when a U.S. General leading Federal troops into Galveston, Texas, at the end of the Civil War read a pronouncement of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued two years previously. Texas was where the war ended with the surrender of the last rebel armies in May and June, 1865. Many slaves were still held in bondage there and then.
The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s declaration that persons then held as slaves by anyone in rebellion against the government were declared free.
The Emancipation Proclamation was, in Lincoln’s view, a lawful action to divest rebel forces of the use of slaves which supported their war effort of rebellion. It did not affect those persons still held as slaves if those slaves were in territories already seized by the U.S. Army/Navy when the Proclamation was issued. Slavery had long been lawfully recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation was a temporary military tool during the war.
It was the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified after the war in December 1865, that finally and completely abolished slavery everywhere in the U.S. or its territories.
For the first few decades after the war, Juneteenth was perennially celebrated, particularly in African American communities. But the joy of slavery’s extinction had itself become extinct in the course of the next century. Control of southern states quickly reverted entirely to white southerners who were bent on politically and culturally disenfranchising blacks of the fruits of citizenship through segregation and other Jim Crow laws.
The late 20th century saw a Juneteenth revival as state after state began making it a recognized holiday. The first of these states doing so was — wait for it — Texas in 1980. Now all states except Hawaii have legislated it as a holiday.
However, only two, including Texas, have made it an observed holiday where state employees have paid leave.
In 2003, the Illinois legislature made the third Saturday of June the recognized holiday. But only as a commemorative one: no closure of state facilities or paid leave for its employees.
Now there’s an irony. A state which committed a quarter million of its sons to the Union cause and freedom, with 35,000 perishing for it, does not give its employees time off to celebrate. That, while Texas, a state which committed treason to protect slavery, has a paid state holiday.
A city in Kentucky and St. Louis County in Missouri have paid leave for their employees. Maryland is working to amend their law to do so.
Among the listed state holidays in Texas’ statute, however, is another 19th-of-the-month holiday: Jan. 19, Robert E. Lee’s birthday. It’s called, “Confederate Heroes Day, in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes.”
As statues of the South’s celebrated rebels topple, southern statutes still stand anchored with the vestiges of the great American scar — white supremacy.
Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Inc. Send questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820.