Gov. Andrew Cuomo last June signed an executive order proclaiming Juneteenth an official New York holiday, on which state employees now receive a paid day off. It was the right move.
On June 17 this year, President Biden signed a measure designating Juneteenth a federal holiday. That, too, was the right move.
On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, in which an estimated 498,000 soldiers died in battle. With the surrender of the South, slavery ended with the stroke of a pen.
But not quite. News of the emancipation of slaves did not reach Texas, a slave-holding state, until June 19, 1865. That day, Union forces arrived on Galveston Island to free Texas’s slaves, who rejoiced in the streets. Since then, Juneteenth — a blend of June and 19th — has been celebrated in Texas. It officially became a state holiday there in 1980, but as of 2019, only Texas had recognized it as a paid holiday for state employees.
There were, astoundingly, 14 Republican members of Congress who voted against the measure to create the national holiday, saying that they objected to the use of “Independence Day” in the legislation, or that the nation didn’t need another federal holiday. (There are now 11.)
There should have been no reason for dissent on this legislation. The United States did not truly become the “land of the free” until all of its people were free. Until that June day in 1865, they were not. The country should acknowledge that fact. A federal holiday forces us to confront our history.
Last weekend, it was wonderful to see people across Nassau County gathering in parks to celebrate with song and food or in the streets to march, reminding us that we have many miles to walk before we achieve the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a society in which “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”