UMass Professor Leads Push to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Amilcar Shabazz
Amilcar Shabazz

Growing up in Beaumont, TX, Amilcar Shabazz, Afro-American studies, celebrated Independence Day on June 19 – Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth is a significant part of American history, but many people are only now becoming aware of the importance of the day.  In Massachusetts, the day has been recognized with an annual proclamation, but it was not a legal holiday.  This year, as June 19 drew near, Shabazz decided that now was the time. “Massachusetts recognizes it as a day, but it was not a true holiday,” He said.

“George Floyd brought it to a new height and Amilcar Shabazz sent out a social media post that this should be a state holiday,” Chris Dunn, UMass director of government affairs noted. “He tagged several state politicians in a post and the idea took off.”

Many believe that Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery for all enslaved people in the United States with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took more than two years for word to reach enslaved people in the isolated parts of Texas. Many slave owners resisted and refused to free their slaves.

It wasn’t until U.S. Army General Gordon Granger announced on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, that slaves had been freed. “There was a field order that said, ‘here’s what’s going down and if you don’t like it, you’ll face our Springfield rifles.’ When Black people got the word, they took that day off and celebrated their freedom,” said Shabazz. The annual celebration continued on into the 20th century.

“Juneteenth is very meaningful to me,” said Shabazz. “In the 1970’s, historians speak of that decade as the Black Power era. This was an elevation of the Civil Rights Movement to a new level that particularly prioritized the empowerment of Black people. The 70’s mark my transition from being a teenager into becoming a young adult. The development of my personality is at the same time as Black people were also coming of age. There was a certain fullness of our personality that had been denied for hundreds of years from slavery, to Jim Crow, to Civil Rights.”

In the 1970’s, there was a renaissance of African culture and an emphasis on Black pride. As Black Texans migrated across the country, they carried Juneteenth traditions with them and Black people nationwide commemorated it as their Independence Day.

For many years, Juneteenth did not have a state sanction in Texas, but Black people took the day off, celebrating with parades, family gatherings and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. It became a legal state holiday in 1980.  Like so many other Texans who moved to other parts of the country, Shabazz carried the traditions of Juneteenth with him. Juneteenth is not part of most grade-school curriculums and African Americans have worked to keep the legacy alive.

Shabazz contacted Senator Jo Comerford, as well as state representatives Bud L. Williams and Mindy Domb. Williams added the measure as an amendment to the state budget and gave a speech on the floor where it voted out and went to the senate and faced no opposition. The Juneteenth amendment passed unanimously on the House floor and then moved to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. It was signed into law on July 24, making Juneteenth Independence Day an official state holiday.  “It’s rare that in the state legislature, anything comes from idea to law in four weeks, but it did here,” Dunn remarked.

“It was really a wonderful surprise. I know how that legislative process can go. We owe everything to the insurgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz sees Massachusetts as a leader in making Juneteenth a federal holiday. He notes that the country has not celebrated a date that the nation as a whole has marked where slavery ended.  “It means we’re finally waking up and we’re united on a date. It’s not just a Texas thing any longer, it’s not just a southern thing. It’s a national drive. I’m very hopeful that the national conversation will be such that it will become a federal holiday and Massachusetts will have played a part in that cause.”