Over the past week, the U.S. Senate and the UC system officially observed Juneteenth as a holiday for the first time.
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, which refused to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett. Federal troops were sent to Galveston in 1865 to “end human bondage” and release the enslaved African American men, women and children who were being unrightfully held.
“They don’t really teach about it,” Bartlett said. “We must hone in on the core of freedom in this country, which I’d argue is more than the white freedom of 1776.”
Bartlett added that Berkeley “has always embraced Juneteenth,” especially those in South Berkeley, where an annual festival has been held for 35 years — the longest continuously run Juneteenth celebration in the western United States.
The festival is held annually on Father’s Day in the South Berkeley Alcatraz-Adeline corridor, according to the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival website. Presented by the Berkeley Juneteenth Association, the festival aims to celebrate emancipation and modern African American culture, while “never forgetting” the systemic horrors of slavery.
“Promote cohesiveness and well-being in the lives of African Americans by celebrating their art, culture and history,” the festival’s mission reads. “Engage the community at-large; Advance social justice solutions in those impacted communities.”
Although the festival is a long-standing Berkeley tradition, the city has not formally recognized the holiday in the past, Bartlett said. The city does sponsor the festival, Bartlett added, but Juneteenth has not been, and still is not, a paid holiday.
This year, all city offices and most city services were closed as Berkeley celebrated the holiday June 21.
The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was introduced last year by several senators, including U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to solidify its status as a federal holiday, according to a press release from the senator’s office.
“It is incumbent upon all Americans to truthfully acknowledge and understand our past and how it affects our present and our future,” Markey said in an email. “Finally commemorating Juneteenth as a federal holiday is just one step on our nation’s ongoing journey toward racial justice and liberation.”
Following the federal passage of the bill, UC President Michael Drake announced that Juneteenth would also become a UC holiday. Juneteenth will be observed by the UC system with canceled classes June 28; in the coming years, the holiday will be celebrated June 19 in line with the federal calendar, a UC Office of the President press release notes.
Drake encouraged the UC community to reflect on the atrocious realities of slavery and “the difficult road from liberation to equality.” Learning about achieving freedom and “participat(ing) in the African American economy” are also essential parts of celebrating Juneteenth, Bartlett added.
Bartlett and Markey both noted that there is much more work to be done in establishing equity and racial justice in the United States and that codifying Juneteenth is only the beginning.
The country must commit to strengthening police accountability to end “the cycle of brutality and murder by law enforcement,” Markey said, as well as “substantive” voting rights reform. Economic, environmental and public health justice must also be centered when advancing racial justice, Markey added.
“At the same time we are celebrating Juneteenth and freedom, the Senate is enabling racist voter restriction laws,” Bartlett said. “Efforts to offer a holiday as a distraction or as bread and circus will not work. The holiday of Juneteenth will drive us further in our quest for freedom, and the right to vote should never be taken away from the people.”