New official holiday commemorates end of slavery

A black and white photo of several men and women at a Juneteenth Celebration in 1880.
A group photograph at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward in 1880

Juneteenth becomes an official state holiday in 2022, providing symbolically important recognition of a pivotal moment in the nation’s promise of racial equality and serving as a necessary reminder of the continuing work still ahead.

The new June 19 holiday, created during this year’s legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, will be added to Washington State University’s calendar of paid holidays when the official state calendar is updated, which is expected soon. On Thursday, Juneteenth became a federal holiday as well.

“While Juneteenth stands as a celebration of freedom, it is also a time that honors the strength, spirit, and lives of those men, women, and children who lived under the system of slavery in the United States,” WSU President Kirk Schulz and Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Chilton wrote in a message to faculty and staff. “Despite delayed freedom, they laid firm claim to their rights of citizenship by creating and elevating a collective memory that affirmed the varied dimensions of their experiences and dreams, and established a legacy that continues to invigorate those who continue to fight for liberation and equality in the 21st century.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when news of the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas with the arrival of Union troops. This news came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy surrendered.

Like many holidays in the United States, Juneteenth is a celebration that belies historical nuance, said Lisa Guerrero, associate vice president for inclusive excellence and professor of comparative ethnic studies.

“Juneteenth represents a flawed but symbolically important moment when the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was completed,” Guerrero said.

The Emancipation Proclamation, however, only freed those enslaved in states that seceded from the Union. Enslaved peoples in border states that supported the Union would have to wait until the ratification of the 13th amendment in December of 1865 to have their freedom codified.

June 19th became a day of significance in Galveston quickly, spreading over the years to outlying regions. In Houston, a group known as the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association raised $1,000 in 1872 to put a down payment on ten acres of land that would come to be known as Emancipation Park.

This year, WSU Everett Chancellor Paul Pitre is participating in a Juneteenth panel discussion organized by the Snohomish County chapter of the NAACP. The topic of the discussion is the state of the Black community. The event will be hosted online and kicks off at 6 p.m. today, June 18.

Read Chancellor Pitre’s message to the WSU community.

Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth formally in 1980, with most states following suit soon after. However, not until October of 2020 did states begin to designate it as an official holiday, with New York and Virginia leading the way.

“With the events of the summer of 2020, there has been a heightened awareness of the continued severe inequality experienced by African Americans in the United States,” Guerrero said. “What we saw last summer really did open a lot of people’s eyes who didn’t realize things were as bad as they are, and in response there’s been a lot of pushing in different ways to bring some semblance of consciousness and acknowledge moments of symbolic importance.”

Making Juneteenth a recognized holiday should not end efforts to address inequality, Guerrero said. Rather, it is an opportunity to educate and serve as a jumping off point towards taking concrete action to address underlying issues that have hampered African Americans in this country since its founding.

“With its responsibilities as a land grant institution, WSU must ask how it can make symbolic historical moments teachable and carry us forward,” Guerrero said. “We have to look at how we can increase enrollment of students from marginalized communities, how we can increase hiring of faculty from marginalized communities and how we can think about different research projects and which communities they are serving and impacting.”

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