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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Proposal To Recognize Juneteenth As State Holiday Advances Past First Committee Stop

man standing and talking, holding microphone
Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee)

While June 19 isn't recognized as a national holiday, it is a designated paid holiday for state employees in six states.

June 19 could be a state-recognized holiday under a senate bill moving through the legislature. The date, also known as Juneteenth, is seen nationally as a day to celebrate the freeing of slaves. But in Florida, many people recognize May 20 instead. That's the day in 1865 when union soldiers read the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time in Tallahassee.

June 19, 1865, marks the day the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in Texas—the last Southern state to hear the news. While June 19 isn't recognized as a national holiday, it is a designated paid holiday for state employees in six states. Already Juneteenth is a day of observance in Florida, but Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) wants to change that designation to a nonpaid legal holiday.

"I decided to go with June 19 because 46 other states recognize Juneteenth, and especially since last year when there was so much racial unrest, there was a lot of attention paid to Juneteenth, and a lot more people found out about it and started to commemorate that day. So just to eliminate confusion, I thought it would be appropriate to make Juneteenth the legal holiday," Bracy says.

But not everyone agrees with the idea of celebrating June 19 rather than May 20. Last year on WFSU's community affairs show, Perspectives, President of the Tallahassee Historical Society Bob Holladay, spoke about Juneteenth. He says it doesn't make sense to celebrate that date in Florida.

"First of all, because Juneteenth is Texas. I mean, why do you want to nationalize something that happened in Texas? And secondly, of course, as we all know, the emancipation proclamation didn't free all the slaves," Holladay says.

He says slaves weren't free across the country until the thirteenth amendment was ratified. Meanwhile, Tallahassee historian Althemese Barnes says celebrating May 20 is a local tradition.

"Even as a child when I was in school, it was a holiday for us until I think I got around maybe 5th or 6th grade and the public school district started giving money to the school that I attended. And at that point, the holiday ceased. But May 20 was always a holiday that Blacks observed here in Tallahassee," Barnes says.

Barnes has been trying to rally lawmakers into making May 20 a holiday. She spoke against Bracy's bill during its first committee hearing. Barnes says recognizing June 19 as Emancipation Day in Florida erases local history.

"So I feel that we need to stand on the side of being historically correct," Barnes says.

Holladay says the issue goes much deeper than picking the correct date. He says it's an issue of community and how you define identity.

"Are we a community in which everything gets nationalized, or are we a community of communities in which Florida, for example, can honor its Emancipation Day and not have it be Juneteenth or whatever the rest of the nation decides to mark and so forth," Holladay says.

Bracy says he's tried to honor May 20 in his bill by including language that mentions the date.

"It says whereas emancipation in Florida was proclaimed in Tallahassee on May 20, 1865, and for this reason, Floridians traditionally celebrate Emancipation Day on May 20 of each year," Bracy says.

Bracy says he realizes the significance of both days, but he says nationally, most people celebrate the freeing of slaves on June 19.

"And so I think this bill is accurate. I would entertain possibly making both of them a legal holiday. I will see what the temperature is for that amongst the Senate members of the next committee," Bracy says.

In the initial filing of Bracy's bill, Juneteenth would be a designated paid holiday for state employees, but that was changed because of budget shortfalls the legislature is facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. Creating a paid holiday would have cost the state millions in expenses like paid over-time for those who have to work during the holiday.
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