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Juneteenth a new city holiday? Winston-Salem is considering it

Juneteenth a new city holiday? Winston-Salem is considering it

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Juneteenth

Dancers with the Great Vision Dance Company perform during a Juneteenth rally and march against systemic racism on June 19 in Winston-Salem. City administrators told council members this week that adding Juneteenth to the city's holiday list is a way to highlight "diversity and inclusion in the community."

Winston-Salem could soon join other cities in the state and elsewhere in celebrating Juneteenth as an official holiday, although the city council has more wrangling to do about the details.

Wake County, Raleigh and Greensboro have already declared Juneteenth to be official government holidays, along with less-populated places like Bertie County and Carrboro.

The city's general government committee discussed the idea here on Tuesday but ended up taking no immediate action when Council Member Robert Clark put the issue on hold with a "no consideration" motion. Clark said he favors the holiday but that too many details were left hanging.

The holiday, whether official or not, is celebrated on June 19 and commemorates the date in 1865 when news of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation reached the city of Galveston, Texas.

The Emancipation Proclamation was announced in September of 1862, but it went into practical effect only with the advance of Union troops across the Confederacy. And Galveston was at the farther reaches of the rebellion.

"The news came to different locations at different times," said Cheryl Harry, founder of Triad Cultural Arts, which organizes the annual celebration here. "As people from Texas migrated to other parts of the country, they took the celebration with them. It has become the national freedom day, commemorating the end of slavery."

City administrators told council members this week that with the death of George Floyd in the custody of police and other cases putting a national spotlight on racial injustice, adding Juneteenth to the holiday list is a way to highlight "diversity and inclusion in the community."

The city has 10 paid holidays: New Year's Day, the third Monday in January for Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

In addition, the city manager designates an 11th "floating holiday" that employees may take.

"I would be very supportive" of Juneteenth as a holiday, Clark said, when the proposal came up in committee this week. "I would be supportive of taking the floating holiday and fixing it on June 19th. I have concerns about adding a 12th holiday."

But Council Member Annette Scippio said that before acting, the council should think about the "rich local history" around the proclamation of emancipation here.

"I would much rather for us to understand our local history," Scippio said. "When did those who were enslaved here hear the message, as opposed to looking to Texas? I would hope we would do a little more research and understand how this is in the context of our own community, because we are dealing with other people's history and we don't know our own history."

Scippio said many Black Winston-Salem residents have celebrated Jan. 1 as Emancipation Day for many years here — a practice that the Encyclopedia of North Carolina cites as a long-standing observance. 

In Winston-Salem, an association has organized an annual Jan. 1 ceremony for some 60 years running.

That's not the only date out there: On May 21, 1865, a Union cavalry chaplain told Blacks who were gathered at what became St. Phillips Moravian Church about the emancipation of slaves.

During committee discussion, Council Member John Larson, a former Old Salem executive, mentioned the reading of the proclamation at St. Phillips, but said he had no problem celebrating June 19 as long as it is seen as a national holiday, not one dealing with just Texas.

"By the time it got to Texas, we were way ahead of them," Larson said.

Council Member Dan Besse said he sees no contradiction between teaching local history and joining in a national celebration.

"I would see this as a teaching opportunity for our own history as well," Besse said. 

Besse made a motion to adopt the holiday, but leaving aside the details on its celebration and how to work in the other dates that were cited. 

Larson then jumped back in to the discussion with the observation that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery only in the parts of the South that were under control of the Confederacy. It wasn't until the 13th amendment went into effect in late 1865 that slavery ended everywhere in the country, Larson said, adding that any holiday should include a reference to Emancipation in its title.

D.D. Adams seconded Besse's motion, noting that the city would consult with historians on the details of the observance.

"This is about social justice to Black folks and trying to acknowledge our presence," Adams said.

Clark, saying that the city needs to hear from local Black history groups, used the "no consideration" maneuver to stop a vote from going forward at the committee level, at least for this month. 

"We have the cart before the horse, there," Clark said. Under city rules, a "no consideration" motion would ordinarily come back to the committee the following month with no additional discussion.

Harry, reached Wednesday after the committee discussion, said that the importance of Juneteenth goes beyond what happened in Galveston.

"The way I see it, unless we are all free, freedom doesn't exist," Harry said.

(336)727-7369 

@wyoungWSJ ​

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