HomeLocal News

Tennessee House sends bill making Juneteenth an official holiday to governor

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: The Tennessee House on Thursday gave final approval to legislation pressed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to designate Juneteenth as a legal state holiday.


Members of the GOP-led House approved the measure on a 61-18 vote, with 10 members present but not voting.


Juneteenth, already a federal holiday, commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued a proclamation declaring the freedom of Black slaves in Texas as federal troops took control of that state.


Juneteenth is currently recognized as a Day of Special Observance in Tennessee. Legislation making it a legal state holiday passed the Senate as Senate Bill 269 last month.


Designating it as a state holiday will provide state employees a paid day off work.


The House had not updated its website as of mid-afternoon Thursday to reflect who voted and how.


“I’m very appreciative of the legislature passing the bill. We expect the governor to sign it,” said Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Black Chattanooga Democrat who supported the bill, in a phone interview. “That shows a degree of bipartisanship that we need. To me, it’s meaningful legislation that recognizes the value of freedom. It changed a lot of people’s lives knowing that freedom came.


“It actually will have a great impact on citizens of the state to accept it and know what it means.”


Eric Atkins with The Unity Group in Chattanooga said in a statement the organization’s members appreciate Hakeem and the other sponsors. The group was formed a half-century ago to encourage Black Chattanoogans to run for public office, unify disparate community groups and press for economic power.


“Let me begin by saying that I’m overwhelmed the Unity Group was able to participate in the passage of the Juneteenth bill with our petition drive, public testimony and collaboration with our local representative Yusuf Hakeem and groups like the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation,” Atkins’ statement said.


“Beyond the periphery, at first glance this legislation might not appear to do much. But if you look further, you will see that not only is it fitting and proper in this time set, but it is necessary. There is no doubt on a wide range of issues we as a society are often on opposing sides, partisan, gridlocked, polarized and in some instances bitterly divided. That’s why this piece of legislation is important.”


Atkins said the legislation honors those who came before.


“It recognizes that the human bondage and servitude experienced by millions of Americans for over 200 years is a stain along the American diaspora,” he said. “It also honors those who came before us like the Unionists of this state who persevered, those who fought in four and a half bloody years of Civil War, and those who went on to build up our communities. Tennessee also had an important contribution to ending that struggle.


“Last,” Atkins said, “we as a society have an innate need to have signs of progress and symbols of hope. When we work together for the common good, and pray together, stay together, learn together, give together, love together. We are a far better nation and society. This is how we build bridges over barriers. This is how we find healing. This is how we as a nation can begin anew and become one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice not for the one, but liberty and justice for us all.”


The bill was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.


Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, a Black Memphis Democrat, presented the bill to the upper chamber in March.


“It marks the emancipation of enslaved people in America,” Akbari told senators. “On June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union troops marched into Texas and let those who had been enslaved know that slavery had in fact ended in America. This is an important celebration for not just African-Americans but for folks all across the state of Tennessee. It was made a federal holiday in 2021.”


That was through an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.


Lee proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in 2022. But it wound up being approved instead as a day of special observance, not a holiday.


The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee estimated the change would cost the state up to $691,890 beginning in Fiscal Year 2024.