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Lawmaker hopes Utah celebrates future Juneteenths on the day ahead of June 19 special session

House Minority Assistant Whip Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, is pictured on the first day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.
Spenser Heaps
Utah News Dispatch
House Minority Assistant Whip Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, is pictured on the first day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Two years after Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law the establishment of Juneteenth as a state holiday, he called a special legislative session on June 19, an occurrence that one lawmaker is working on getting corrected.

In Utah, the celebration of what’s also known as Emancipation Day is observed on the immediately preceding Monday if June 19 falls on a weekday or the following Monday if the holiday is on a Saturday or Sunday. That has been official since 2022, when the state Legislature passed HB238, sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.

Since the bill’s approval, more Utahns have become aware of what Juneteenth commemorates, Hollins said. She had designated an observed holiday, hoping to get a three-day weekend “not knowing it was going to cause some confusion.”

“I take full ownership of that, and I am in the process of writing legislation so we can align with the federal government,” Hollins said about the June 19 special session. “And so next year, we will not have this issue.”

Hollins is planning on introducing a bill titled State Holiday Modifications in the 2025 General Session, so Juneteenth is commemorated on June 19.

“I can understand how this happened, but it won’t stop us from the celebrations that will be taking place,” she added.

Jeanetta Williams, longtime president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and a candidate for the House District 26 seat, called the holiday intersection with the special session a “political stunt.”

“To me, it’s a slap in the face saying that we don’t care, and we don’t care about diversity in our community,” Williams said.

She added that the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and other organizations were only consulted about HB261, a law that restricts diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Utah public entities, on the first day of the legislative session.

“But (Cox) made his mind up to support that particular bill, and he did,” Williams said. “And he signed it into law almost immediately after it passed.”

In Williams’ view, the special session — that’s set to discuss Utah’s response to new Title IX regulations and amendments to a bill that extended the life of the coal-fueled Intermountain Power Plant — could have been scheduled in March, April or May to avoid coinciding with the Juneteenth holiday.

Juneteenth celebrations

Juneteenth marks the day in which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, which remained under Confederate control, received the news of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, two and a half years after the signing of the document.

The announcement prompted big celebrations, later becoming a tradition among African American communities.

“Here in the state of Utah, we have always had Juneteenth. We’ve had celebrations here since the ’80s,” Hollins said. Adding the date to the state’s holiday calendar was a way to bring Utah in line with the federal government, which established it as a national holiday in 2021.

President Joe Biden said in the proclamation announcement implementing the holiday that the U.S. needed to commit to eradicating systemic racism. He added that as the country emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic “we must recognize that Black Americans, among other people of color, have shouldered a disproportionate burden of loss — while also carrying us through disproportionately as essential workers and health care providers on the front lines of the crisis.”

For Hollins, in 2024, Utah’s Black community faces the same challenges that everyone else faces in the state; such as economic difficulties, housing affordability and low home ownership rates.

“Of course, we still have our challenges around racism that still exists here in the state of Utah, but it’s not something that is stopping us. We’re still moving forward in this state, and being a part of this state,” Hollins said.

However, in the last few years, the state representative said she has noticed some positive changes as well, such as Utah becoming home for more Black business owners.

Williams spent Tuesday, the day before the holiday, organizing a free expungement clinic with Clean Slate Utah, the S.J. Quinney College Of Law’s Pro Bono Initiative and Rasa Legal at the Justice Center in honor of Juneteenth. Participants had access to free records screenings, volunteer attorneys and fee assistance for those who qualified.

“(Juneteenth is) what individuals or organizations or groups want to make of it. Some have more of a jubilee, music and dancing. Some small businesses can showcase or have a booth about their businesses. But in the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, we chose to do this expungement clinic,” she said.

The holiday has always been visible in the African American community in the Salt Lake Valley, Williams added, with flag raising events and other community activities organized by different municipalities.

“It just gives everybody an opportunity to come together, to even learn more about exactly what Juneteenth is and other things, community things that people can be able to get involved within the community,” Williams said.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.