WASHINGTON – It took more than two years for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the last enslaved people in Texas – and it may take as long to win wide acceptance for the new federal holiday marking that event.
Juneteenth, designated a federal holiday just last year, meant a day off for most federal workers Monday, but not for workers in half the states, including Arizona. It was recognized by some cities, but not by others, and just 30% of private businesses this year gave their workers the day off.
But supporters say the national holiday, years in the making, is a “big deal.” They said they intend to keep raising awareness about the day and what it means as a celebration of the “independence and freedom of Black people in the United States.”
“For it to be a national holiday is a big deal. We’re looking to get more steam from a state level,” said Cloves Campbell, the publisher of Arizona Informant Newspaper, which has been organizing an annual Valley of the Sun Juneteenth Celebration in Phoenix for almost 20 years.
While not yet widespread, Juneteenth is already making gains. The number of states that recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday has gone from two to 24 in the last two years, according to a Pew report, with Connecticut slated to add it next year.
The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ biennial survey said the number of private employers offering Juneteenth as a paid holiday rose from just 8% in 2020 to 30% this year.
Julie Stich, vice president of content at the foundation, linked the rise to the federal designation and to a heightened public discourse around Black peoples’ experiences following the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer in the summer of 2020.
“I think that if they do decide to either offer it as a paid holiday, or to recognize it in some way, it can reflect a company’s core organizational values,” Stich said . “If they have diversity, equity and inclusion, and an inclusive culture, they may find it to be a tangible way to recognize the importance of the day.”
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, the day when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and told enslaved Black people there that they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation – which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. The proclamation abolished slavery in rebel states, but it took years, and the end of the Civil War, for it to reach all of the country.
Texas has long celebrated Juneteenth as a state holiday. In 2016, Arizona became the 45th state to recognize Juneteenth, but it has not taken the next step and made it a state holiday.
“Unfortunately enslavement was a big part of our history for a long time. A lot of people made a lot of money off of enslaving Black people,” Campbell said. “So this (observing Juneteenth) is just the beginning towards moving towards other issues that the country can recognize as part of our history.”
The holiday got a boost last year when President Joe Biden signed a bill designating Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday after decades of failed attempts.
In February, Phoenix became one of the first Arizona cities to declare Juneteenth a city holiday. Since then, Tempe, Scottsdale, Goodyear and other cities in the state have followed suit.
Campbell said the Valley of the Sun Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday drew more than 2,000 people, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who read the city proclamation declaring the city holiday. Representatives from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office were also present.
Although slow to catch on, Black-owned businesses and activists in Arizona find the growing popularity of Juneteenth encouraging but say the community deserves more.
Aquil Hameed, a Black business owner in Tucson, thinks it is great that Juneteenth is now recognized as a national holiday. But even though he allowed his workers to take the day off if they wanted to, Hameed said he planned to go to work Monday in hopes of “leveling the playing field.”
“No, we don’t need a paid holiday,” Hameed said. “We need equity.”
But he welcomed the observance of Juneteenth, saying it provides a platform for much-needed discussions on race relations in the country.
“I see a lot more Black people outside with other organizations that are highlighting Juneteenth as a holiday, Black people throwing more of these events in celebration,” Hameed said. “Anytime that Black people can come together in a celebratory reason or mood, it’s always going to be good as it creates opportunities for people to network and to build.”
He said that more people in Arizona need to be aware of the historic significance of Juneteenth. Campbell agreed, saying he hopes to see Arizona and most other cities in the state officially designate Juneteenth a holiday soon.
“If we celebrate the independence of America with the Fourth of July celebration, we need to be celebrating the independence and freedom of Black people in the United States,” Campbell said.
“We’ve been enslaved for many years. We’re still going through a whole lot of issues,” he said. “So there’s still a lot of work to be done.”