Black Washingtonians rejoice as Juneteenth is declared a federal holiday
Juneteenth recently became a Washington state holiday and on June 16, it officially became a federal holiday. Representative Melanie Morgan introduced the bill in Washington. She explains why the 19th of June is so significant.
“In 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was outlawing slavery,” Rep. Morgan said. “But the state of Texas did not follow along until 1965. So Black people in the state of Texas called this our independence day; when everybody, all Black African American slaves, were then free.”
The federal bill passed the House 415 to 14 after a unanimous vote in the Senate earlier this week. Rep. Morgan got a bit of pushback as well.
“I think two of the pushback statements that I had heard while I was running the bill was, one, the state of Washington didn’t practice slavery at the time,” Morgan said. “For that I say, it benefited off of the three trillion dollars made off the backs of my ancestors. We also weren’t a state on July 4th, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but yet we celebrate that holiday proudly every year. Then, two, is that it costs too much. When is the right time to correct racial injustice? For me this is just a down payment of what is owed to Black African Americans.”
I asked her if the 14 federal lawmakers who voted against the holiday did so based on economics or if she thinks racism played a role.
“Of course there is racism attached to it,” she chuckled. “Who wouldn’t want to celebrate Juneteenth?”
Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State.
“The first recorded celebration of Juneteenth in Seattle was on June 19, 1890,” Johnson-Toliver said. “The Black residents of Seattle met on Pike Street. There was a big marching band, they marched through downtown Seattle to the train station, and then headed to Kent where they met up with all of these other Black folks and had a huge picnic, which they called a Glorification. There was an orchestra and free ice cream.”
Johnson-Toliver says there have been ebbs and flows in the celebrations over the years.
“We talked about it in my family, we didn’t really have huge celebrations here that I knew of in Seattle,” Johnson-Toliver said. “So we somehow lost the tradition along the way until DeCharlene Williams, who in the 60s decided that it was a shame that we weren’t celebrating Juneteenth.”
Donna Moodie is chef and owner of Seattle restaurant Marjorie. This Saturday she’ll be teaching a virtual Juneteenth cooking class through PCC, where she’ll share her famous jerk chicken recipe and a bright red hibiscus drink in honor of the holiday’s tradition of eating and drinking red things.
“I think that the significance of the color commemorates the loss of life, the blood,” Moodie said. “But also keeping an eye on the positive and looking forward.”
“The Kool-aid always comes out!” Johnson-Toliver said. “You know, the red Kool-Aid.”
For many Americans, last year was the first time they’d heard of Juneteenth, and not all Black Americans grew up celebrating it.
“I did not grow up celebrating it,” Moodie said. “I was always aware of it and thought it was a good day to honor the history of Blackness. But it wasn’t something in my household that we grew up celebrating.”
The same is true for Representative Morgan.
“No, I did not know about Juneteenth when I was growing up,” Morgan said. “This was never taught. We have to remember that white Americans wrote the history books and they chose what they were going to put in those history books. So this was a good educational journey for me as well. Of course I’m relating to this, this is my history, these are my ancestors that stayed alive, resilient, made it through so I could be a city legislator here in the state of Washington.”