The Oregon Senate unanimously agreed Tuesday to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday beginning in 2022.
On a 28-0 vote, senators passed House Bill 2168. It recognizes the June 19 holiday’s cultural and historical significance. The bill passed the House on April 8, 53-0.
Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, gave an impassioned speech in support of its passage Tuesday. Frederick used photos of his great-grandparents and other family members to illustrate what the date means to people whose relatives lived through the history that this bill commemorates.
“HB 2168 designates June 19 as an Oregon state holiday, commemorating the arrival on horseback of the news of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to the cheers of African Americans then enslaved,” Frederick said. “That’s basic historical information but it doesn’t really do justice to the emotions involved here.”
Frederick first displayed a 1954 photograph of his great-grandfather, Robert Johnson, who at the time was 103. Frederick is in the photo as a small child; he’s standing next to his parents and younger sister Karla five months before the birth of his younger brother.
“(Johnson) and his parents and others who looked like him worked in the fields under the threat of death. They had no control of their family, access to food or shelter. They could not make any decisions on their own,” Frederick told his colleagues. “His family, my family, was likely sold down the river to the family of Jefferson Davis to ... plant, chop and pick the cash crop of cotton. He fought for and with the Union Army when it came through Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the Civil War. He became a sharecropper, and a landowner after the Confederacy lost. He raised eight children who became preachers and teachers.”
Frederick explained the pride that came with his great-grandfather seeing the family go from slavery to watching his grandson — Frederick’s father — march in commencement at Southern University as a professor of biology.
“Celebrating Juneteenth is not just a legal historical marker,” he said. " It is a memory that lives on in each of us.”.
Frederick also showed his fellow senators a photo of a march he attended as a young boy in Atlanta in which demonstrators called for the freedom of Rev. Ashton Jones, a civil rights activist and close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was jailed in 1963 for attempting to worship at an all-white church with two Black men in Atlanta.
Another photo showed Frederick’s mother, father and other family members standing with then-First Lady Michelle Obama at a commencement ceremony at Tuskegee University. It was the second time a first lady attended the ceremony after Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941. Frederick’s father attended both commencements.
“His sense of hope, my mother’s sense of hope — and she’s the one standing right next to Michelle Obama, as no one’s surprise — is what keeps me going,” Frederick said. “That sense of hope keeps the community going as well, despite the fact that there are folks who want to return to the deep Confederacy in whatever way they can. Voter suppression is one tool they now use, along with fear.”
Frederick noted that the death of George Floyd just over a year ago was a reminder that the issues of racism and lack of safety for America’s Black communities and other marginalized groups still exist.
“This new holiday recognizes that the people of the state of Oregon, despite our past, can take the veil of ignorance away, and each year celebrate hope on Juneteenth,” Frederick said.
Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, also urged his colleagues to pass HB 2168 and drew from his family’s experience to illustrate the connection to the history of Black Americans in Oregon and beyond. He spoke of his father, who fought in Italy during World War II in a segregated unit where only 200 of 2,000 men returned. He described how his father’s experience, including being wounded in action, drove him to alcoholism, “crumbling” him.
Manning said that despite everything his father went through to preserve the freedom of this nation, he never talked about getting even. He only spoke of wanting recognition and opportunity.
He also drew on the words of NBA coach Doc Rivers, who once said, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
“[Those words] resonate with me, all the time. So I want to be an example of how we can move ahead,” Manning said. “Our voices today, on a lot of legislation, is [sic] going to ring profoundly throughout the state as to who we are moving forward and what we truly represent as Oregonians, as people, as human beings, as productive members of this great body.”
HB 2168 is set to take effect on the 91st day after adjournment of the Oregon Legislature on June 28, meaning that the first official day recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday will be June 19, 2022.
The bill will head back to the House for a concurrence vote on a minor amendment before heading to the desk of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown for her signature.