By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
During the past legislative session, the Washington State Legislature approved HB 1106 designating June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is affectionately referred to, as an official state holiday. The measure signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 13, 2021 will also recognize Juneteenth as an official paid holiday for public employees beginning in 2021.
In recognizing Juneteenth, the legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Melanie Morgan (D-Tacoma) with the support of Rep. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) and State Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-Tacoma), stated that “the legislature intends to designate Juneteenth as a state legal holiday to celebrate the end of chattel slavery. The legislature encourages that this be a day to engage in fellowship with Black/African Americans; revisit our solidarity and commitment to antiracism; educate ourselves about slave history; and continue having conversations that uplift every Washingtonian.”
Morgan believes that the legislation will help bring reconciliation to the history and trauma of chattel slavery in America.
“My hope was that it brings reconciliation to the atrocities of chattel slavery,” says Morgan. “That it brings healing and that we acknowledge Black pain and Black trauma and that we celebrate this together as the state of Washington as we do July 4th. This is the Black African American Independence Day.”
On June 19, 1865, the word finally reached Texas, the farthest outposts of the Confederacy, that chattel slavery has been abolished. Since then, generations of African Americans in Texas and beyond have celebrated Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day – to pay homage to the day that enslaved people in Texas found out that they were free from slavery. For decades, many African American communities across the country have been trying to bring attention the significance of this date to American history. Some with more success than others.
To many, the passage of the Juneteenth Holiday Bill signifies the changing of the guard of our story, our history. Since slavery was enacted upon African Americans, our narrative has not been our own. What we were taught was not only distorted, but it is also a small portion, a glimpse of time in and of the history of people of color, particular enslaved Africans and their descendants born and raised in America.
According to Nobles, Juneteenth brings a more positive, insightful and necessary step in both the healing for the descendants of the slave trade as well as the descendants of the slave traders by acknowledging and recognizing the significance and the effects that the history of slavery has had on America as a whole.
“Juneteenth is a day of true recognition and acknowledgement of the pain and trauma Black and African American communities have experienced,” says Nobles, who was a strong supporter of the bill and spoke on the Senate floor in favor of the bill. “It is a step towards justice. By acknowledging this country’s history and the atrocity of enslavement that has caused generations of trauma, we have a place to start critical conversations on how we move forward.”
While many people are celebrating the legislative victory in recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday, the recognition, which was 14 years in the making, did not come without a fight. In 2007, Black lawmakers in Washington State began an aggressive push towards establishing a day of recognition on June 19th and the goal, at that time, was met with resistance. Fast forward to 2020 as civil unrest and the COVID pandemic began to expose the true nature of policy, policing and racism in America ultimately led to a moment of racial reckoning and a sympathetic ear towards the plight of African Americans in this country that created an opportunity for the passage of progressive legislation in Olympia.
“In 2007, we worked to make it a day of remembrance,” says Lovick. “Over the years others have fought for legislation to make it a state holiday and we could never get there.”
“This year, Representative Melanie Morgan took the bull by the horns and made it happen,” added Lovick. “It was just the year for it. You know a lot has happen in the last 13 months in this country with George Floyd and this was the time for Juneteenth as a state holiday.”
According to Morgan, she originally introduced the bill during the 2020 legislative session but it didn’t get the necessary support due to state budget constraints, as the price tag for implementation was more than the state could allocate at the time.
“I actually introduced the bill in 2020 and everyone agreed with the policy,” says Morgan. “No one had any issues that June 19th should not be a holiday, but it was a supplemental budget [year] and we just didn’t have the money to pay for it. So, I brought it back [during a legislative session where we were approving a] larger budget and it passed.”
While the notion of slavery represents a dark time in American history, Lovick believes that the acknowledgement of Juneteenth as a state holiday will provide the descendants of American slaves and those who benefitted from their labor an annual opportunity to reflect on the true history of this country, to reconcile and to heal.
“This will be a wonderful time for us to come together,” says Lovick. “Bring the community together to learn the history of those who endured slavery, overcame slavery and really understand what it took and the sacrifices they made and really get and appreciate what our ancestors endured to make it possible for you and I to do what we do now.”
For Morgan, the passing of the Juneteenth Holiday Bill is something that she hopes will lead to bigger and better things for all people in the state.
“It is time that we acknowledge this,” says Morgan. “We acknowledge every other culture’s holidays even ones that are not on the books like Cinco De Mayo, we celebrate those every year, this one here is about the history of our people and the way our country has been formulated in its laws and the systemic racism brought upon us. That is why this is so important.”
“This bill is more than just about a holiday,” said Morgan, when she was advocating for the bill in the Legislature. “Juneteenth is a recognition, a true acknowledgement, that chattel slavery happened in this country. This is how we begin to advocate for true racial equity and real inclusion.”
The Black Members Caucus of the Washington State Legislature and the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs were also instrumental in the passage of the Juneteenth Holiday legislation. The 2021 members of the Black Members Caucus are Rep. Jamila Taylor (Chair), Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (Vice Chair), Rep. April Berg, Rep. Debra Entenman, Rep. David Hackney, Rep. Jesse Johnson, Rep. John Lovick, Rep. Melanie Morgan, and Sen. T’wina Nobles.