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Hawai‘i Becomes 49th State to Recognize Juneteenth, Biden Signs Federal Holiday Bill

Gov. David Ige signs a bill on June 16, 2021, recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth.
Office of Governor David Ige
Gov. David Ige signs a bill on June 16, 2021, recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth.

HONOLULU — Hawaii on Wednesday became the 49th state to officially recognize Juneteenth when the governor signed legislation designating June 19 as a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Gov. David Ige signed the bill just hours before the U.S. House passed its own legislation designating the day a federal holiday. The U.S. Senate already passed the bill unanimously.

President Joe Biden then signed the legislation Thursday, saying he believes it will go down as one of the greatest honors he has as president. Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday.

“This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Biden said.

Hawaii's law recognizes Juneteenth but doesn’t make it a state holiday. The state law takes effect immediately, just in time for the date to be officially observed on Saturday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.

It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. One of the federal holidays, Inauguration Day, happens every four years.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day — on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.

After the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police last year fueled calls to address systemic racism in the United States, Hawaii Gov. David Ige said it was more important and timely than ever that Hawaii acknowledge the African-American experience and the accomplishments of African Americans.

“With the signing of this bill, I hope that June 19 will serve as a moment of reflection for everyone here in the islands and across the country to remember where we’ve come from, but most importantly, to be inspired to move our country and our community forward in search of that more perfect union where we treat everyone equally each and every day,” Ige said.

The law came into being after Samantha Neyland, the-then reigning Miss Hawaii USA, launched a campaign to recognize the day.

She recalls preparing to speak live on social media about Juneteenth during the coronavirus pandemic and learning that Hawaii was one of few states that didn’t observe the day.

“And I kind of got embarrassed for my state. I just thought, OK, this is not who we are. We can’t be known for this. We’re so much better than that,” said Neyland, who is the first African American to serve as Miss Hawaii USA.

The killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement gave her additional motivation, remembering how their deaths left her hurt, confused and angry and needing to channel these emotions into something.

“It kind of came to me and of me, and I decided, yeah, this is going to be my project,” Neyland said.

Neyland hopes official recognition will spur Hawaii schools to teach students about Juneteenth history and about how the Hawaiian Kingdom outlawed slavery in 1852. Neyland said she didn’t learn about either in school.

“You can’t change something that you don’t understand. So for me, this past year especially was about helping people understand,” she said.

South Dakota is the only remaining state to not observe Juneteenth. The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.

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