Vermont could become the next state to make Juneteenth an official holiday



Published: 03-19-2024 4:29 PM

An effort afoot in the Vermont Senate would make Juneteenth a legal holiday — but not a day off.

Two Senate committees have given their support to S.206, which would add June 19 to a dozen other dates already in statute, and the bill could hit the floor in that chamber for a vote as soon as Friday.

A federal holiday since 2021, Juneteenth — an amalgam of the month and the date — marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Texas and told enslaved African Americans of their freedom, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

June 19 is also celebrated as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Black Independence Day across the country. In Vermont, the country’s second whitest state, several communities have hosted celebrations in recent years ranging from historical exhibitions and panel discussions to picnics and music festivals.

In 2007, Vermont designated the third Saturday in June as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day.” If approved, the bill under consideration in the Senate would set the date on June 19. At least 28 states recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday, according to Pew Research Center, and a majority mark it as a paid day off.

Juneteenth has received broad coverage in recent years as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to systemic racism and led to calls for reparations for the past and ongoing oppression of Black people in America.

Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden North, who introduced the bill, said in an email that the legislation “would elevate (Juneteenth) from a commemorative day to an official holiday, even though there’s no automatic day off associated with making this change to the law.” This country was built on the labor of enslaved people brought to the U.S. against their will, she said. Making Juneteenth a legal holiday would be “a small step to acknowledge that history of oppression” and could help educate residents to “reflect upon chapters of black history that should not be forgotten,” she wrote.

“It is vital that we recognize the ongoing struggle for justice and the need to dismantle systems of inequality,” she added.

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Gov. Phil Scott supports the bill, according to spokesperson Jason Maulucci.

‘Standing on the right side of history’

Racial justice advocates have urged legislators to pass the bill, saying it would send a powerful message of solidarity to Black residents and could provide an opportunity for further education and reflection on the country’s racist history.

It is not just a symbolic gesture but “a necessary acknowledgment of Vermont’s complicity in the oppression of Black people and a commitment of rectifying past injustices,” Shawn Pratt said in his testimony on behalf of both Rutland and Bennington area NAACPs in the Senate Committee on Government Operations on March 1.

“Vermont has a chance of standing on the right side of history by embracing Juneteenth,” Pratt said. “It is not just about a day off. It is about recognizing the horrors of slavery and the ongoing fight against systemic racism.”

Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, Xusana Davis, said in her testimony that her office supports the bill and hoped the designation wouldn’t come in lieu of other racial justice efforts.

She reminded legislators that Vermont only recently amended the state Constitution to explicitly prohibit slavery and of the state motto — freedom and unity — and said the Juneteenth effort would echo that spirit.

While many commemorative events have been organized statewide for Juneteenth in recent years, Davis said the holiday could also help encourage municipalities to engage in issues of racial equity and justice, which is important “because so many inequities we experience in this country really happen at the local level,” such as land use, education and policing.

Since 2016, lawmakers issued proclamations abolishing Columbus Day and renaming it Indigenous Peoples Day. In 2019, Scott made it official by signing legislation, following a nationwide trend to confront the harms of colonization and the legacy of Christopher Columbus.

To make Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees would involve collective bargaining with their union, and legislators this week reiterated that the bill is not looking to do so. 

At the local level, some communities have already gone ahead and designated the day an official holiday. Burlington did so in 2022, closing city offices on that day and announcing its first official celebration.