The United States will acknowledge Juneteenth as an official public holiday for the first time in history this year, following the example set by the Legislature in May.
President Joe Biden signed a bill designating June 19 as a federal holiday just two days before the annual occasion. State lawmakers took a similar action during the last legislative session — Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1016 into law on May 13, formalizing statewide recognition of Juneteenth.
"This is phenomenal," said Jasmine Tolbert, president of NAACP Vancouver. "It's another step in the right direction of recognizing the harsh realities that this country has to face when it comes to Indigenous people and Black folk."
While advocates pushing lawmakers to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday have just recently found success, celebration of the occasion is nothing new. African Americans and people of color have been recognizing June 19 — sometimes called Freedom Day — as the end of slavery in the U.S. for more than a century.
In Clark County, NAACP Vancouver holds a Juneteenth celebration every year, usually with fairs, award ceremonies, panel discussions and live music.
History of Juneteenth
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, he ordered that all enslaved people in Confederate states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," effective Jan. 1, 1863.
However, that policy wouldn't become the lived reality for hundreds of thousands of slaves for more than two years.
States that remained under Confederate control continued the practice. In Texas, more than 250,000 Black people remained enslaved. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay and declared that all slaves were free by executive decree. That day — long celebrated by members of the African American community, but often left out of mainstream history lessons — became known as Juneteenth.
The practice of enslaving human beings was officially abolished by the federal government with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865. Cementing abolition in the Constitution also ensured that future U.S. territories could not adopt slavery.
In 2020 and in 2021, they shifted plans in response to the pandemic.
Like last year, Saturday's celebration hosted by the local NAACP chapter will be held virtually.
Karin Edwards, president of Clark College, will open the event at 10:30 a.m. with a historical explanation of Juneteenth. Edwards will be followed by the keynote speaker, poet and author Dominique Christina.
Attendees are encouraged to RSVP at the organization's website, naacpvancouverwa.org.
Across the river, virtual and in-person celebrations are also taking place, including a livestreamed concert produced by PDX Jazz. A full list of Portland-area events is available at pdxpipeline.com/juneteenth/.
"For folks that are vaccinated and feel comfortable to be out in public, I encourage them to do that," Tolbert said. "We're hoping next year, we can go back to in-person."
Tolbert added that after years of Juneteenth celebrations within people of color circles, recognition of the holiday finally seems to be breaking through into the mainstream public's consciousness.
"Really ramping up the awareness around this, we've seen a lot of local companies and businesses taking it seriously and treating Juneteenth as a holiday for their employees as well," Tolbert said.
"For a long time — when you think of holidays such as the Fourth of July, and even when you think of celebration for voters' rights for women — a lot of people don't take into consideration the lens that this impact has had on African Americans and people of color in this country," she said. "The Fourth of July is 'a celebration of freedom,' but my people were not free when that was first celebrated."
Movement in Olympia and D.C.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, was one of the 39 co-sponsors of HB 1016.
"It's a big deal. It's an opportunity to acknowledge that the history books that we may have grown up with did not address our full history," Stonier said. Recognizing Juneteenth, she continued, represents a step toward telling the country's "full history, from everyone's perspective."
As a former middle-school history teacher, Stonier told The Columbian that she strongly supported granting official status to an occasion that's often ignored by typical textbooks.
"We as educators spend a lot of time trying to flush out the full story," Stonier said. "Commemorations and holidays have been put on the books and identified by the dominant culture in this country."
She added that the idea of formalizing Juneteenth at the state level has been floating around for several years, often in the same conversations surrounding Columbus Day.
This year, there was renewed political willpower, Stonier said. The legislation was among a long roster of equity and racial justice bills that landed on the governor's desk from the most recent session, including around a dozen new laws aimed at increasing oversight of law enforcement.
Compared to many of those, this bill was relatively noncontroversial; it passed both chambers in a landslide: 89-9 in the House and 47-1 in the Senate. All of the representatives and senators from Clark County cast their votes in favor.
"This year, in the Legislature, we at least in the House were very intentional about narrowing our focus to COVID response, undone environmental issues and anything having to do with racial equity that we felt needed to be addressed," Stonier said. "This was one that certainly fit that last focus that we wanted to have this session."
The federal bill similarly cruised into law, with no opposing votes in the Senate and just 14 Republicans dissenting in the House. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted with the majority to certify the holiday and has previously recognized the day in posts to her social media.
"This is an incredible country, but we also must be aware of our shortcomings," Herrera Beutler wrote last year. "As we continue the pursuit of racial equality and justice 155 years later, let's take a moment today to reflect on what that means and strive to better live out our nation's founding principles of liberty and justice for all."