Last June, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday, proclaiming it as a day for all Americans to commemorate the end of slavery.
One year later, only 18 states have passed legislation that would provide funding to let state employees observe the day as a paid state holiday, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Opponents of bills that would create funding for the permanent holiday have complained of the costs associated with giving workers another paid day off. Some have said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile.
For supporters, such arguments are painful to hear, especially as more Americans said they were familiar with Juneteenth. This month, nearly 60% of Americans said they knew about the holiday, compared with 37% in May 2021, according to a Gallup poll.
“This is something that Black folk deserve and it was like we had to almost prove ourselves to get them to agree, said Anthony Nolan, a state representative in Connecticut, where legislators argued for hours earlier this year before passing legislation to fund the holiday.
Juneteenth commemorates the events of June 19, 1865, when Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom after the Civil War had ended.
The day has been commemorated by Black Americans since the late 1800s. Although all 50 states have recognized Juneteenth by enacting some kind of proclamation celebrating it, its full adoption as an American holiday has yet to take root.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, said state employees should have the day off and set aside more than $690,000 in the annual budget to cover the overtime costs of any employee who worked on Juneteenth.
But when the bill came up for discussion during a February committee hearing, Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican, said he had spoken with more than 100 constituents about the holiday. Only two knew what it was, he said.
“I just think it’s putting the cart before the horse to make a holiday people don’t know about, Hensley said during the hearing. “We need to educate people first and then make a holiday if we need to.
The bill came out of committee but was taken off the legislative calendar later that month.
The resistance from some legislators recalls the tension that sprang out of efforts to make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a paid holiday throughout the country.
President Ronald Reagan signed King’s birthday into federal law in 1983, but by 1990, Montana, New Hampshire and Arizona still had not made the day a legal holiday. In 1986, Bruce Babbitt, governor of Arizona and a Democrat, enacted the holiday, but his successor, Gov. Evan Mecham, a Republican, quickly rescinded it the following year, because he said the governor did not have the authority to take such action.
In 1990, Arizonans voted against a measure that would have made the day a paid holiday, leading Stevie Wonder, the Doobie Brothers and Public Enemy to boycott the state in protest. The NFL also stripped the Phoenix area of its rights to host the 1993 Super Bowl.
In 1992, Arizona voters overwhelmingly agreed to turn King’s birthday into a state holiday.
The Juneteenth commemoration marks the legal end of slavery in the United States, a hard-fought achievement of the Civil War. Granger’s announcement in 1865 put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than 2 1/2 years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln, on Jan. 1, 1863.
The holiday is also called “Juneteenth Independence Day, “Freedom Day or “Emancipation Day.
The proclamations issued across the country are “just largely symbolic, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American studies at Duke University.
“If you really want to put skin in the game, you make it a paid holiday, he said. Such actions show state employees, he added, that “‘this is a sacrifice on our part.’
It also forces a recognition that Juneteenth is a day that should be commemorated by all Americans, not just Black citizens, Neal said.
“You think of Juneteenth and Independence Day as kind of bookends to this idea of American democracy and freedom, he said.
Texas became the first state in the country to make Juneteenth a paid day off in 1980.
When Biden signed the holiday into federal law on June 17, 2021, eight other states had already made it a paid holiday.
They included New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.
This year, nine more states joined them: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In Connecticut, it took more than two years for legislators to enact a bill creating the holiday, said Nolan, who recalled some of the impassioned arguments he and others made on the floor of the Statehouse.
“I said, ‘People are going to be watching,’ he said. “‘People are going to know that you didn’t vote for this.’
The legislation was approved 148-1 in the state’s House of Representatives and 35-1 in the Senate.