By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Washington state is one of a handful of states that recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. In 2021, 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 recognize Juneteenth as an official paid holiday for public employees for the first time this year (June 19, 2022).
Juneteenth is the remembrance of the last Black Americans who were emancipated on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. It was on that day in 1865 that word of the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished chattel slavery in America had finally reached Texas, the farthest outposts of the Confederacy. 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 to the significance of this date to American history. Some with more success than others.
In June of 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that made Juneteenth an official national holiday. As such, federal employees will have the day off. However, just because it is a national holiday does not mean it is a state holiday for states which have not passed a similar law. While typically federal and state governments share holidays, that is not always the case.
Many observers admit that the passage of the legislation in Washington state, which was sponsored by State Rep. Melanie Morgan (D-Tacoma) with the support of Rep. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek), was a matter of having the right legislation at the right time and having the right people in place to push it through. The civil unrest and the COVID pandemic of 2020 began to expose the true nature of policy, policing and racism in America that ultimately led to a moment of racial reckoning and lend a sympathetic ear towards the plight of African Americans in this country and created an opportunity for the passage of progressive legislation in Olympia.
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.
“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.”
“In 2020, 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 this country with George Floyd and this was the time for Juneteenth as a state holiday.”
According to supporters, the legislation is one that encourages Juneteenth to be a day of fellowship amongst all Washingtonians; it is a day to revisit Black solidarity and commitment to anti-racism; a day to educate ourselves about our story; and continue having conversations that uplift every Washingtonian.
Morgan believes the legislation will help bring reconciliation as it relates to the trauma caused by chattel slavery and its history in America.
“My hope is 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 in the state of Washington as we do July 4th. This is the Black African American Independence Day.”
What we were taught about our history was not only limited, but distorted as well, and the context was a small portion, a glimpse of time in and of the history of people of color, particular the enslaved Africans. Since slavery was enacted upon Africans and her diaspora, our narration has never been our own.
According to State Sen. T’wina Nobles, in this present day, Juneteenth provides an insightful, optimistic and necessary footprint in both the healing for the descendants of the slave trade as well as the descendants of the slave traders by acknowledging and admitting the importance and the impact the history of slavery has had on this nation.
“Juneteenth is a day of true recognition and acknowledgement of the pain and trauma Black and African American communities have experienced,” says Nobles. “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 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.
“This bill is more than just about a holiday,” said Morgan. “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 during the 2021 legislative session 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.