Oregon lawmakers in the House unanimously approved a bill making the day slavery ended in the United States a legal state holiday.
The holiday, which falls on June 19 and is also known as Juneteenth, “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” commemorates the day when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free. The news came on June 19, 1865, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War ended. .
“While this is an important day for many Black Americans, this is not a separate history, this is our history,” House Majority Leader Rep. Barbara Smith Warner said on the House floor Thursday evening. “This is American history. For far too long, the experiences, contributions and stories of Black people and people of color have been excluded from our nation’s legacy, Oregon’s history and minimized in history books. We must not forget and we must continue to share this history so it’s not forgotten.”
Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, noted Oregon has a long history of racial exclusion.
Oregon began as a whites-only state and had a series of exclusionary laws designed to discourage Black Americans from living in the state. The state’s constitution also had a clause prohibiting Black people from owning property and making contracts.
“We all know we are still dealing with systemic racism and racial discrimination in our country, but each time injustice has reared its ugly head it has been met with resistance,” said Meek, who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the floor.
The City of Portland and Multnomah County have already made Juneteenth a paid leave day. In 2001, the Oregon Legislature adopted a resolution to declare statewide observance of the day, but House Bill 2168 takes the additional step to make it a paid state holiday.
Texas was the first state to make the day a holiday in 1980. Since then, 47 states and the District of Columbia have made the day either a state holiday or an observance.
Although the day has been marked by celebrations for decades, following the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests calling for racial justice, the day has gained more widespread support.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said it was a holiday she only “recently began to understand.”
“Learning more and more about it, I absolutely agree this is absolutely worthy of a yes vote,” she said.
Jeston Black, who submitted testimony in favor of the bill on behalf of the Multnomah County commissioners, said the day is undeniably a celebration, but it’s also more than that.
“It’s also a reminder of the work that’s been done to tear down systems of oppression, and a call to engage in the work that remains ahead,” a letter from the commissioners read. “This call — not just to the Black community, but to all non-Black people — today sounds as loudly as it ever has. And people across the country are answering through demonstrations and protests, advocacy, and direct assistance.”
The measure now heads to the Senate.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free.