A national celebration of the end of slavery that has its Oregon roots in a shipyard in the 1940s will be a state holiday for the first time this year.
For more than 150 years, African-American communities have celebrated June 19, or Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 that Union troops finally arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state – the last slaves in the newly reunited U.S. – were free.
Celebrations began in Texas the following year and migrated out. The tradition arrived in Oregon in 1945, when Clara Peoples moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma, to work at the Kaiser shipyards in Portland and introduced it to her colleagues.
In 1972, Peoples helped launch an annual citywide celebration in Portland. Fifty years later, celebrations will continue in Portland and statewide in Juneteenth’s first year as a state holiday.
On June 18, 2020, after almost a month of daily protests over police killings and systemic racism in Portland, Gov. Kate Brown proclaimed June 19 as Juneteenth and announced that she would have the Legislature introduce a bill making it a state holiday in 2021.
“I know this is a small, yet important step,” Brown said. “I encourage all Oregonians to join me in observing Juneteenth by getting educated on systemic racism in this country and getting involved in the fight for racial justice.”
Every state observes Juneteenth, according to the Congressional Research Service, but only 18 states treat it as a paid holiday. It became a federal holiday in 2021.
Texas was the first to formally recognize Juneteenth, observing it as a paid holiday in 1980. The other 17 states that treat it as a holiday all started doing so in 2020 or later.
And Texas led most states in recognizing the holiday by more than 20 years. Only Minnesota and Oklahoma observed Juneteenth before 2000.
A family affair
Peoples, who brought Juneteenth to Oregon from her home state of Oklahoma, died in 2015. Her granddaughter, Jenelle Jack, now directs the nonprofit Juneteenth Oregon, which manages a parade and two-day festival in Portland and hosts leadership workshops for girls and young women.
“When she passed away, me and her other granddaughter, my sister were like, ‘We’re going to keep the legacy going and keep the awareness out there for other people to know what Juneteenth is,’” Jack said. “And here we are with it being a federal and a state holiday, but she put in all the footwork.”
Growing up as Peoples’ granddaughter, Jack always knew what Juneteenth was. But she didn’t learn about it in school, where she recalls learning about the Emancipation Proclamation and sometimes seeing a sentence about the holiday. The girls aged 6 to 19 who participate in her organization’s Miss Juneteenth program still learn about Juneteenth from the nonprofit, not their schools, Jack said.
Jack thinks of Juneteenth as America’s second Independence Day. When the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, America’s founders proclaimed that all men were equal and had certain rights, including liberty – but many of those men also owned slaves.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, that all Americans were truly free. It still took decades for women, Native Americans and people of Chinese descent to be allowed to vote, and Black men who had been guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment in 1870 largely remained disenfranchised until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“You can’t have a Freedom Day and everybody’s not free,” Jack said. “But here we are. We do get our Juneteenth, and it’s a community event. It’s a celebration for everybody because we’re all Americans.”
A ‘celebration of dignity’
Two decades before the Oregon Legislature voted to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday, the Legislature approved a resolution declaring that each June 19 should be “a day for celebration statewide of the dignity and freedom of all citizens.”
Former Sen. Avel Gordly, the first Black woman elected to the Oregon Senate and the author of that legislation, told the Capital Chronicle that language was important. At the time, Juneteenth wasn’t widely known, let alone celebrated, outside Black communities.
“We want to embrace the fact that it’s an American celebration,” she said. “It’s not just a celebration for Black people only. It is a celebration within Black history, but Black history is American history, so we all get to claim it.”
Peoples and another organizer, Woody Broadnax, came to Gordly with a request to recognize Juneteenth as part of a national movement to draw attention to the day.
Gordly thinks about the day in the context of Oregon’s history. The territorial government in 1844 ordered all Black people out of the state with a law, never enforced, that would have punished any who remained with a severe whipping every six months.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, the Constitution explicitly forbade Black or mixed-race people from living in the state, owning property or making contracts. Oregon was the only state with such a clause, and it remained until 1926, though it was made unenforceable by the 14th Amendment. In the 2020 census, only 3.2% of Oregon’s population identified as Black or partially Black – far lower than the 14.2% of all Americans and the neighboring states of Washington (5.8%), California (7.1%) and Nevada (12.1%).
Now that Juneteenth is a state and federal holiday, Gordly said work must continue for Americans to understand why the day is celebrated. Other holidays, such as Memorial Day or Labor Day, started to honor soldiers killed in war or workers’ rights and morphed into excuses to host barbecues or advertise mattress sales.
To honor the spirit of Juneteenth, public schools need to teach about Black history, including but not limited to slavery, Gordly said. Students need to learn about the contributions Black Americans made to the country’s culture, and about how slavery shaped much of the past.
“Until we get to that place where we’re actually teaching the true history of the founding of the nation, we will fall short, but we don’t have to fall short,” she said. “We just need to do the hard work of owning up to the truth of how we got to where we are as a nation. I think it’s an exciting place to be because it is about truth, and it is about claiming how we became a nation economically built on the backs of those who were enslaved.”
CLOSURES Because June 19 falls on a Sunday, the federal and state government will observe the holiday on Monday, June 20. All state and federal offices and courts will be closed Monday. Most banks, which follow federal holidays, will also be closed. The U.S. Postal Service also will not deliver mail on Monday. Businesses may be closed or have adjusted hours, so check before making trips.
Oregon Capital Chronicle
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