OLYMPIA – Like many people, Michael Bethely didn’t learn the history behind Juneteenth until later in his life.
The holiday, which celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people, was never common knowledge, said Bethely, who is now the co-chair of the Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition. It’s another example of the disparity in the knowledge of Black history in the country.
With a bill to designate Juneteenth as a paid state legal holiday, the state Legislature is hoping to honor those who were slaves, celebrate the end of slavery and make a first step toward improving the knowledge of Black history in the state.
But many in Spokane say it is only the beginning.
“It’s long overdue, but I think that recognition is the first step toward a certain kind of reconciliation that may be able to happen in our community,” Bethely said.
The bill would add June 19 to the list of paid legal holidays. It passed through the state House of Representatives last month and is now making its way through the Senate.
On June 19, 1865 – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation – enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Juneteenth has since been celebrated as Emancipation Day to celebrate the abolishment of slavery.
Juneteenth represents liberation for the Black community, said Sandra Williams, executive director at the Carl Maxey Center. The country celebrates the Fourth of July as Independence Day, but Black people weren’t independent at that time.
It’s important for the state to acknowledge the “real history that we have in this country, the parts that are great and also the parts of it that are not so great,” Williams said.
Washington designated Juneteenth as a day of remembrance in 2007, but this bill would take it a step further in Washington and make it a paid day off. Forty-six other states and the District of Columbia recognize it as a day of observance. Texas, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are the only states where it is a paid holiday, but many other states have considered it within the last year.
“If we should get this across the finish line, it would just take a moment in time to appreciate the African American experience, to acknowledge the contributions and to acknowledge being free,” Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson told The Spokesman-Review.
It took a long time for the state to get here, Wilkerson said.
“The time is now,” bill sponsor Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Tacoma, said in her floor speech. “Without this, then how can we truly advocate for racial equity?”
The bill passed 89-9 in the House. Opponents expressed concerns over the cost for the state in creating another paid holiday. The fiscal analysis of the bill says it would cost the state about $5.7 million every two years to pay staff that must work, even on holidays. Both the Senate Democrats’ and the House Democrats’ proposed budgets for the next two years have appropriated those funds.
Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, told other lawmakers during the floor debate that he anticipated members of his party would be voting against the bill because of the cost. Some believe it is not appropriate to spend this money during a pandemic and a time of economic recovery, he said.
Volz voted in favor of it as he said it was a holiday that was “under-acknowledged and underappreciated.” Of Spokane-area legislators, Republican Reps. Rob Chase, Bob McCaslin and Joe Schmick voted against it.
Morgan fought back on the concerns of the holiday’s cost.
“To that I say, it’s not even close to the real cost of racial injustice,” Morgan said on the House floor.
Wilkerson said if it’s really important to the state, the Legislature should find a way to pay for it. Juneteenth is one day out of “years and years and years of lack of acknowledgement, lack of acceptance, lack of inclusion,” she said.
“I recognize it could be a financial hardship, but for African Americans it’s been a lifetime of hardships and sacrifice and suffering,” she said.
Wilkerson said the recognition would give people of color a platform to begin the education of Black history. It can start the process of weaving education into the community.
By having a holiday, people will start to seek out information, Williams said.
Spokane already has Juneteenth celebrations every year. The Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition has been putting on events every year since 2011 as a way to uplift the community, Bethely said. The coalition also gives out Community Pillar Awards every Juneteenth to honor local organizations or individuals.
The coalition is still determining how to celebrate this year, and a lot of it will depend on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Knowledge is powerful in so many ways,” Bethely said. “This is not going to solve the racial disparities and a lot of the injustices that have happened, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
For many, making Juneteenth a state holiday is only the beginning. Wilkerson said she and other leaders of color will continue to create a path forward.
The Legislature is looking at other bills to address systemic racism in the state, including numerous pieces of police reform legislation. Democratic legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee included equity as a priority for the Legislature this session. In his legislative proposals, Inslee called for making Juneteenth a paid state holiday.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee will vote on the bill Friday before it heads to the Senate floor for final passage.