Bill tries to add to state holidays

Groups requesting Maryland observation of slave liberation

March 17, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Last year, Sharon Pinchback didn't know the story behind "Juneteenth" -- the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Texas with news of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now, she is a spokeswoman for the celebration. She brought her message yesterday to a Senate committee in Annapolis considering a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

"It would be a holiday that relates specifically to me -- one that says there was an atrocity done to me, but I am free of that now," Pinchback said. "It can give my children and your children, my community and your community a chance to explore this part of history together."

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and told the slaves there they were free. Since then, many African-Americans have adopted it as a day for remembrance and celebration.

The Senate Finance Committee heard from Pinchback and others about the day's meaning and significance. Pinchback, a postal worker and mother of three, said learning the story of Juneteenth has transformed her. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the bill's sponsor, said making the day a holiday could act as "a healing bridge" for Marylanders.

"It's necessary for healing in the state," she said. "We know that we still have some unfinished business."

Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, told the committee that she had amended her bill so that Juneteenth would not be a paid state holiday. Had she not done so, the legislation would have cost the state millions of dollars in overtime. The Division of Correction, for example, would have added more than $1.1 million to its budget.

With the amendment, state employees could take the day off by using vacation time. The amendment also means the holiday wouldn't cost the state any money, a fact that could help the proposal win passage.

For years, Juneteenth celebrations were largely limited to Texas and surrounding states. It was an unofficial holiday marked with barbecues, rodeos and parades. In recent years, nationwide interest in Juneteenth has grown as more African-Americans have delved into lesser known parts of history.

Shuan Rose, a Baltimore lawyer, told the panel Juneteenth is "the longest continually celebrated holiday among African-Americans."

"Juneteenth, for many African-Americans, is the best day to celebrate freedom," he said.

During the past 20 years, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Delaware have made Juneteenth a legal state holiday, as have more than 200 cities. Three years ago, the U.S. Senate adopted a joint resolution recognizing Juneteenth as the true Independence Day for African-Americans.

Juneteenth celebrations have been going on in Baltimore for at least 12 years. This year's "Juneteenth Jubilee" will be held June 16 and 17 at St. Mary's Park in the 600 block of N. Paca St.

Samuel Dean, a member of the Juneteenth Observance National Advisory Committee, said that many blacks see July 4th as a tainted holiday. In the early 1800s, Frederick Douglass gave a now-famous speech questioning Independence Day's meaning for black Americans.

Dean told the committee that Juneteenth could be seen "as the absolute day for this country's independence."

For Pinchback, Juneteenth has given her a bit of history she can pass on to her children and others. It has become a doorway for exploring portions of American history and for seeing the contribution of her ancestors as an integral part of her country.

"Everyone likes to have something that they can own," said Pinchback. "My mission is to absorb it and pass it on."

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