Editorial: Make Juneteenth a state holiday

As part of the celebration of Juneteenth, Alicia Cummings, of Bridgeport, takes part in painting the words “Black Lives Matter” onto Broad Street in downtown Bridgeport on June 19. The event was organized by Sheree Baldwin-Muhammad and involved local artists, community members, local officials and residents to paint the words.

Among the many steps that could be taken — and should — to address racial inequities in Connecticut, we single out one that could happen quickly with bipartisan support. Make Juneteenth a state holiday.

The will is there. State Senate Democrats made it part of their encompassing list of action items to target racial inequities, highlighted in the past month by protests and peaceful marches across the country. The outcry was in response to the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis policeman pinned him down, knee to the back of his throat for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd’s death was a month ago, on the 25th, and if anything marches and rallies have increased.

This is a pivotal moment in history where substantive change can happen.

Reform must be broad, from policies on policing to education, employment, housing, health care access, criminal justice and other quality of life issues.

Making Juneteenth a state holiday does not address any of those important issues, we acknowledge. But it demonstrates respect and a willingness to confront our nation’s history.

Juneteenth celebrates the final end of slavery in the U.S. on June 19, 1865. On that date, union soldiers came to Galveston, Texas to tell the last pocket of slave holders that the Civil War was over with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee two and a half months earlier. The Confederacy that fought to keep slaves was no more; President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective Jan. 1, 1863, declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

For the past 155 years, Juneteenth was a day of celebration, primarily in Black communities, with parades and gatherings, speeches and barbecues. While Juneteenth has long been significant to Black culture, the date was not widely known among white people, by and large it was not mentioned in school history lessons.

This finally can be rectified. Last year the state Legislature enacted a bill to require African American and Latino studies be taught in public schools by 2022; the curriculum is being developed and should include the actual end of slavery on June 19, 1865.

In 2003 Connecticut declared recognition of “Juneteenth Independence Day.” It is 48th in the list of such days that include Ukranian-American Day (Aug. 24), School Safety Patrol Day (the last Wednesday in September) and Family Day (the second Sunday in September).

Texas was the first to make it a state holiday, in 1980, and this year New York followed and Virginia’s governor will propose legislation. Connecticut should do the same.

One anticipated argument is that state employees would gain another holiday, but this could be a negotiating point and not an obstacle.

As an official state holiday, June 19 could become a day to celebrate African American freedom and achievement, and, adhering to its roots, to encourage self-development and respect for all cultures.

That would be a good starting point.

Connecticut Media Group