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Juneteenth, a day Texans have celebrated for 156 years, is suddenly a national holiday

WJLA – Washington D.C. logo WJLA – Washington D.C. 6/18/2021 Sam Ford (7News)

The holiday came so quickly, many didn’t know what hit them. In less than a calendar week both houses of Congress passed bills creating a new federal holiday, the president signed it into law, and its being observed tomorrow nationwide and here in DC. It’s called Juneteenth.

When we asked DC resident George Whitley about it he said, “I don’t know nothing about Juneteenth.”

Since he’s not the only one who’s never heard of it: it’s a celebration Black Texans have observed for 156 years, ever since a US Army general arrived at Galveston to announced that the war was over and enslaved people were free. It was June 19, 1865, more than two months after Southern general Robert E Lee had surrendered to Northern general Ulysses Grant to end the Civil War.

LIST: Here's how to celebrate Juneteenth around the DC area

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that DC would follow suit when the federal government said it would observe the holiday Friday, June 18th since the 19th is on a weekend. Yet D.C. decided on a “modified” holiday because it came so quickly. DMV appointments, trash pickup will go on as scheduled. Most parking enforcement, schools and libraries will take the day off.

Bowser, while cheerful about the holiday said Senators should not consider the holiday a reason not to pass other measures like D.C. Statehood and Voting Rights.

”We don’t want the Senate to think that an important act that they passed unanimously apparently, relieves them of the work that they have to do,” Bowser said. 

The House has already passed those measures.

Howard University Political Science Professor Ravi Perry noted that this federal holiday measure swept through Congress, while the Martin Luther King holiday took years and lots of work by many groups.

He said the holiday is an important symbol, but “It’s a paradox I think for the public because folks were like: wait a minute, we didn’t ask for this.”

RELATED | The story of Juneteenth, America's new federal holiday

Said Perry, “There were no marches and rallies asking for Juneteenth holiday. There are no organizations lining up saying this is what we need. “

“Things like the George Floyd policing act, the for the people act, DC Admission Act, the equality act. Those are things that black people actually need,” said Perry.

And while some DC groups have observed Juneteenth celebrations, the city’s official holiday is Emancipation Day in April. Asked if she would drop that holiday in light of Juneteenth, the mayor said the two are different.

What’s a real Juneteenth celebration like?

We asked James Wright, reporter with DC’s Washington Informer newspaper and native of Austin, Texas.

“Festivals, concerts, huge picnics and for everybody it’s just a festive atmosphere,” said Wright, “It is our Fourth of July in Texas, because it was when we got freedom”

Wright said Texas made it an official state holiday in 1980 but even before that “Black Texas would take off of work, or they would close their shops and they would celebrate. And White Texans knew this, and they just sort of looked the other way or joined in the festivities”

Was he surprised that Congress made it a federal holiday?

“I think I speak for Black Texans: We never envisioned it being a federal holiday because we always saw it as ours. Everybody can join in if they want to. Happy to have everybody, including here in DC,” Wright said.

Pew Research says Texas has the highest population of Black people, 3.9 million, followed by Florida at 3.8 million and Georgia with 3.6 million.


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