Pennsylvania enshrines recognition of Juneteenth into law

Milford. Cleo Jarvis of Pike County celebrates in the Capitol rotunda: "Say it with me, ‘Juneteenth is American history.'"

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  • Cleo Jarvis of Pike County, president of the African American Network of the Poconos, in the state Capitol last week with PA Rep. Rosemary Brown (Photo provided)

  • PA Rep. Susan Helm and Gov. Tom Wolf celebrate after the signing of a bill designating June 19 "Juneteenth National Freedom Day." (PA Rep. Rosemary Brown Facebook page)

Pennsylvania is permanently recognizing Juneteenth, the cultural holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States.

Cleo Jarvis of Pike County, president of the African American Network of the Poconos, shared her joy in the state Capitol in Harrisburg last week after Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation designating June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day.

"Say it with me, ‘Juneteenth is American history,'" Jarvis said to a gathering in the rotunda.

Most states recognize Juneteenth, and Pennsylvania lawmakers typically recognize the day by passing non-binding resolutions.

The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it couldn't be enforced in many places until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

It was June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his Union troops arrived at Galveston with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.

A Juneteenth celebration was also recently held at Courthouse Square in Stroudsburg by the African American Network of the Poconos. PA Rep. Rosemary Brown (R-189) said the legislation, House Bill 619, passed the House and Senate unanimously with bipartisan efforts.

She said Texas was only one other state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday.

"It's history, and it's important that we continue reminding ourselves of history, teaching history, and respecting...forgiving, and moving forward, and just not forget what has happened in the past," she said after the bill signing. "It's important."

Under the law, employers aren't required to treat June 19 as a legal or official holiday.

Fulfillment of an ideal

“While Independence Day marks the conception of a free nation, Juneteenth is a celebration of the fulfillment of this ideal through the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Gov. Wolf. “In honoring this day, I encourage all Pennsylvanians to reflect on the struggles and sacrifices our forefathers made to give us freedom, while realizing the importance of continuing to build a nation that truly reflects the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.”

PA Rep. Sue Helm (R-Dauphin), who sponsored the legislation, said, “I hope that the annual observance of Juneteenth will lead to more knowledge and awareness of the events that unfolded in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and will help to tell the whole story of the abolition of slavery.”

PA Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia), Chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said that in addition to celebrating the new holiday, "we also celebrate the continued education and achievement of African Americans, in the face of overwhelming discrimination and hardship,” said. “Today should be a reminder to us — as individuals, as institutions — to recommit to liberty, justice and equality, so we can move our nation forward, providing opportunities and promoting success for all.”

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