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Juneteenth steps toward state holiday status

Marks the day many slaves learned they were free

  • Friday, February 26, 2021 12:01pm
  • News

OLYMPIA — Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, D-Seattle, often sees her grandmother’s features when she looks in the mirror.

She thinks of how her grandmother, a woman of color, experienced systemic racism and fought for a better life despite societal barriers in rural Missouri only a few generations before the state representative.

Harris-Talley told the House of Representatives on Feb. 25 she supported Juneteenth as a state holiday because of the existence of structural racism in the country today. She said what may seem like a simple acknowledgment could go a long way in building an “antiracist society,” one she wants her own two children to grow in.

“We need to sit with those realities and have reflection on how we give service to addressing racial inequity and injustice,” she said.

June 19 took one step closer to being recognized as a state holiday after the House of Representatives voted 89-8 on Feb. 25 in favor of Juneteenth, the day most African American enslaved people learned of their legal freedom.

HB 1016 marks one of several attempts this session to address the lasting, systemic effects of slavery and racism in the country.

“The time is now. This bill is more than just about a holiday,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Tacoma. “It is about true recognition and acknowledgment that chattel slavery did happen in this country.”

The law garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, though some Republican lawmakers took issue with the fiscal impact of the bill, which would cost the state around $7 million of paid leave for state employees to take off work June 19.

Morgan said she understood the fiscal impact, but mentioned the country and Washington state in particular benefited from more than $3 trillion made “off the backs of enslaved people.”

“It’s not even close to the real cost of racial injustice,” she said.

After then-President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, the news did not spread to Southern plantations for more than two years. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that many enslaved people learned of their legal freedom.

Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, supported the bill, saying he considered himself a history buff but was surprised at how little he, and many Washingtonians, knew about this historic day.

“It’s important to acknowledge the fact that Americans came together — white and black — to work to free the slaves,” Volz said.

HB 1016 will move on to the Senate for further consideration.

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