Tucson City Council approves Juneteenth holiday, calls on Arizona to follow suit
Juneteenth, which commemorates the announcement of the end of slavery reaching Texas in 1865, became a holiday in Tucson after the City Council voted last Tuesday to give a paid day off to city employees on June 19.
President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday in June 2021, making it the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as the third Monday of January in 1983 by Ronald Reagan.
Federal government employees now have a paid day off to remember June 19, 1865 as the day when the Union Army proclaimed freedom for slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War.
However, government employees working for half the states in the country — including Arizona — aren’t so lucky. Other states including Florida, California, Pennsylvania and Hawaii, have yet to make it a paid day off.
Juneteenth is a paid day off for government employees working in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Alabama, Georgia, Maine and Colorado, among others.
Mayor Regina Romero said at the Tuesday meeting “now more than ever we must take each opportunity to highlight and celebrate the rich histories of our communities and cultures across our country.”
“Juneteenth is rooted in celebration and joy," Romero said. "It is celebrating a moment of liberation and emancipation for the Black community."
Three guest speakers talked at the Tuesday study session about the importance of Tucson adopting the holiday and slowness of states to make a Juneteenth holiday.
“It’s time for us to do something about this,” Ron Burton, a retired Parks and Recreation superintendent for the city of Tucson, said Tuesday. “Establishing a state and federal Juneteenth holiday guarantees attention to be paid to the painful United States history that is still unknown by many Americans.”
It would be “a celebration of Black culture and achievement,” he said. “It’s an issue of respect” for the Black community."
More than 250,000 people were freed when the Union Army, through Gen. Gordon Granger, brought the news of emancipation to Galveston, Texas, said Larry Starks, president of the board for the Tucson Juneteenth Festival.
Starks called this year’s festival “very successful” with more than 1,200 people in attendance. He said the holiday gives the city “the opportunity, as Tucson, to include diversity, equity and inclusion in our city.”
“It’s not just a holiday for Blacks. It’s not just a holiday for African-Americans,” he said. “Our festival this year included every diverse population that there is. What you will do in enacting a holiday is start the conversations, because a lot of kids and a lot of people don’t know what Juneteenth is about.”
Grady Scott, a pastor at Grace Temple Baptist Church, agreed, saying a Juneteenth holiday would become “a way of beginning a dialogue about how this great nation moved from slavery to freedom for people of African descent.”
“When Tucson’s children ask, why don’t we have city services today, that parent will have to tell them ‘because we’re celebrating Juneteenth,’” Scott said, calling it “a day when African Americans found out they had been liberated from slavery.”
The state recognizing Juneteenth would be “another step in that great direction” towards achieving “Dr. King’s dream of an America where all men are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” Scott said.
Pima County also recognizes Juneteenth as a holiday and gives county employees a paid day off anytime during June to limit a disruption in services. The Board of Supervisors approved the holiday on Sept. 6 this year, after a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, dissenting.
At the Tuesday study session, Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik said “it’s not surprising Arizona is not one of those” states that recognizes Juneteenth. “I predict they will be, though,” he said.
Kozachik compared the state’s reluctance to adopt a Juneteenth holiday to when the State Legislature voted down a chance to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1986. After an executive order to create the holiday, then another to rescind it plus two attempts at the ballot, Arizona still didn’t recognize the holiday.
It wasn’t until the National Football League disqualified Phoenix as the host city for the 1993 Super Bowl, which cost the city $200 million in lost revenue, that Arizona became the last state to recognize the holiday.
“Here we go again, Tucson, leading the rest of the state,” Kozachik said. “Tucson will be setting the tone for the rest of the state.”
Juneteenth was “long celebrated in the Black community as Freedom Day, Independence Day or Emancipation Day,” Burton said. “Juneteenth is a time for get-togethers, picnics, concerts and reflections.”
César Chavez day is also observed every year by the city of Phoenix and Tucson to honor the Mexican-American and Arizona-born labor rights leader. Tucson celebrates the day on the Monday or Friday closest to March 31, while Pima County allows employees to take a paid holiday any time during the month of March, just like they now offer a flexible holiday in June for Juneteenth.
Similarly, the Tucson City Council passed the César Chavez holiday in 2014, before Arizona, which has yet to make the day a state holiday. Only three states — Colorado, Texas and California — offer it as a paid holiday.
Former President Barack Obama declared March 31 to be César Chavez Day in 2011 in honor of the crusading founder of the United Farm Workers, but he didn't establish it as a federal holiday until 2014.
On years when Juneteenth falls on a weekend, such as 2022, both Tucson, Pima County and the federal government give their employees either the Monday after or the Friday before off — depending on whether it’s on a Saturday or a Sunday.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.