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Juneteenth holiday up for Monday vote in Winston-Salem. City employees would have a choice about when to celebrate.
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Juneteenth holiday up for Monday vote in Winston-Salem. City employees would have a choice about when to celebrate.

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Winston-Salem's general government committee has voted to recommend adoption of Juneteenth as a paid city holiday, although the exact date of the celebration is still undecided.

Passage by the committee brings the holiday up for a vote on Monday by the full Winston-Salem City Council.

The motion approved by general government on Tuesday does not specify a date for the celebration, which typically takes place on June 19 in places where it is observed. The date commemorates the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned about their emancipation in 1865. They were among the last enslaved Americans to be told of their freedom.

Initially celebrated in Texas, the holiday has gradually spread nationwide, and in North Carolina has become an official holiday in Wake and Orange counties and in the cities of Raleigh and Greensboro.

The same city committee discussed the holiday last month, but got bogged down on the details: It was pointed out that for years the city has celebrated Jan. 1 as Emancipation Day, and someone pointed out that on May 21, 1865, a Union chaplain told Black people in the town of Salem that they were now free.

Although the new holiday would be a paid one for city employees, it would not be an additional holiday.

Instead, a "floating" holiday that the city manager can set for any date has been designated as the new Juneteenth holiday, whenever it turns out to be celebrated.

The committee approved the change on a 3-0 vote with East Ward Council Member Annette Scippio abstaining.

Scippio had argued that perhaps the city should use the day as one for staff members to learn about diversity and and racism, rather than simply getting the day off.

"I would love for the city to be a little different than other cities," Scippio said. "Instead of a day off, it might be a day of reflection and discussion and education — to enrich city employees with history, or learning or fellowship with each other."

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That way, Scippio said, employees would "better understand the impact that slavery has had on our nation."

Southwest Ward Council Member Dan Besse said the other local dates of importance that were mentioned last month can be talked about when the city has its own Juneteenth, but that in joining with other cities on a common date of celebration, "it is part of the national conversation."

North Ward Council Member D.D. Adams, who chairs the general government committee, said there will be time in the future to figure out how to observe Juneteenth and what the role of city employees might be in observing it. The important first step, she said, is to simply get the holiday on the books.

"It will evolve and change as time goes on," Adams said, noting that the same thing had happened with the establishment of a day to commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

"We had to go through years of 'How do we make this better?' " Adams said. "There will be other conversations going forward."

Adams said one possibility might be for the city to get public feedback on the holiday, much as it did when changing the name of the fair.

Voting in favor of the Juneteeth holiday were committee members Adams, Besse and Robert Clark. 

"I just want to make sure it is the right day that everyone wants," Clark said. "I want to make sure we pick the appropriate date. I have no comment on what that date should be."

A group called Triad Cultural Arts sent the city a statement endorsing the establishment of Juneteenth here.

The group noted that in 1866, when Juneteenth started becoming an annual celebration, it was used not only to celebrate freedom, but also a "a way to gather lost family members, to give voting instructions to newly freedmen and to assess progress that had been made."

The group went on to say that official recognition of Juneteenth could spur efforts to fix racial disparities in education, housing, employment and other areas of life.

336-727-7369 

@wyoungWSJ

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