Gov. Charlie Baker issued a proclamation Friday recognizing June 19 in Massachusetts as Juneteenth, “a chance for us all to reflect on this country’s painful history of slavery and the systemic impact that racial injustice continues to have today.”
But he’s also open to doing more.
During a press conference Friday, the Republican governor was asked what he thought about legislation introduced this week by several Democratic state lawmakers that would make June 19 a state holiday, or at least making Juneteenth “more visible in school education.” The date marks the anniversary of when Union soldiers informed slaves in Galveston, Texas of their freedom in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We would look forward to working with the legislature to come up with an approach to this that puts a much finer emphasis and a bigger point on Juneteenth,” Baker said, noting that his office typically doesn’t comment on specific legislation until it gets to his desk.
Amid a reenergized movement to address racial inequality following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Baker has signaled that he’d like to do more than just a proclamation.
“As our country continues the national conversation around racial injustice, it is especially important that we recognize Juneteenth,” Baker said in earlier statement Friday. “I look forward to working with our legislative colleagues to recognize this important day more widely going forward.”
Most states, including Massachusetts, already commemorate Juneteenth in some symbolic manner. Texas, however, became the first state to make it a paid holiday in 1980. And in the wake of Floyd’s death, the governors of several states — including New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — have moved to also make it a paid day off for state employees.
According to state law, Massachusetts currently observes Juneteenth Independence Day on the Sunday that is closest to June 19. However, a group of Democratic legislators introduced bills in the state House and Senate on Thursday that make the actual day of June 19 an official state holiday in Massachusetts.
A minority, yet growing number, of businesses have also recently begun giving employees the day off on June 19. As the Boston Business Journal reported Friday, several local law firms, banks, tech startups, and Harvard University are among them.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said Thursday that he would support legislation to make Juneteenth a holiday, amid calls from his City Council to elevate the date to the same designation as state holidays like Patriots’ Day. Walsh noted, however, that it would require a change to state law and result in more overtime costs for the city.
“If the legislature does it, I support it wholeheartedly,” he said. “But we’d have to look at how does it happen. Does it fall on a date? Does it fall on a weekend? You know, the date might be in the middle of the week. … there’s a lot of conversation.”
At the federal level, a bipartisan groups of senators have expressed support for making Juneteenth a national holiday. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, announced Thursday that he intends to introduce such legislation. And on Friday, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey (who gave his campaign staff the day off Friday) joined fellow Democratic Sens. Tina Smith, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris on a bill to do the same. Sen. Bernie Sanders similarly called for making Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2019.
“This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past in order to ensure equal justice in the future,” Markey said in a statement Friday. “Today we commemorate. Tomorrow, we fight.”