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Juneteenth's long road to recognition, by the numbers

There are only three states that do not formally celebrate the holiday: North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii.

WASHINGTON — For many Americans, June 19 has long had a special meaning. But last Friday, the day known as Juneteeth got a lot of added attention. The holiday, which honors the end of slavery in America, was celebrated as people marched against the police treatment of African Americans and President Donald Trump postponed a rally on the 19th for one day out of respect.

It may seem to some that Juneteenth appeared suddenly this year (Google just added it as a holiday to its calendar in 2020), but the number of entities and groups acknowledging the day has been growing for decades. And a look at the numbers suggests a national holiday may soon be a reality.

In some ways, the slow recognition of Juneteenth is ironically fitting. It was originally born out of a lack of acknowledgment. In an age before social media, or even mass media, news traveled slowly. And even though the Civil War ended in April, there were parts of the country that didn’t learn that the Confederacy had surrendered to the Union for weeks or even months. In many of those places life, and slavery, carried on.

That was especially true in the more far-flung parts of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until June 19, more than two months after Appomattox, that Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to formally announce the war was over and to inform the citizenry of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That day, June 19, 1865, was celebrated as the day that slavery ended on American soil, though it was still practiced in some states until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified.

Juneteenth quickly became an annual unofficial holiday in some communities in Texas and elsewhere with barbecues, parades and prayer gatherings, but not an official one. Few former Confederate states had an interest in granting the day formal significance.

It was more than 100 years before any state formally honored the day’s importance. In 1980, Texas became the first state to officially make Juneteenth a holiday. And since then, 46 states and the District of Columbia have done the same, with most of the growth from the holiday coming since 2000.

Today, there are only three states that do not formally celebrate the holiday: North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii. There may be a number of reasons for those states lagging behind the trend, but they stand out on a few important points. None of them were in the union at the time of the Civil War and all of them are less than 4 percent African American.

Beyond state recognition, Juneteenth has seen a growing acknowledgement in Congress as well. The 114th, 115th and (current) 116th Congress have all passed resolutions recognizing the holiday in the House and the Senate.

That’s a lot of momentum in the state and federal government to endorse the day, and this year, as the Black Lives Matter protests dominate the headlines, the private sector’s interest in Juneteenth has also risen dramatically. A long list of companies announced Juneteenth would be added as an official paid holiday.

The private sector interest ran the gamut from retailers to tech companies to financial services business and even the National Football League, which has faced criticism over its handling of quarterback Colin Kaepernick and African American players kneeling during the National Anthem.

It took a long time, but Juneteenth appears to be on its way to something more substantial in the years ahead, perhaps sooner rather than later.

This week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced HR 7232, a bill that would “establish Juneteenth Independence Day as a Federal holiday.”