NORTH ADAMS — Juneteenth might become Massachusetts' newest state holiday.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers informed enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, that the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation had made them free under law. The proclamation was signed in 1862, but news did not reach Texas until 1865. June 19, or Juneteenth, has since become a day of celebration, particularly in black communities.
A group of seven Massachusetts lawmakers Wednesday introduced "An Act to make Juneteenth Independence Day a State Holiday." That group includes state Reps. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Maria Robinson, D-Framingham, Chynah Tyler, D-Boston, and Bud Williams, D-Springfield, as well as state Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton, and Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn.
"I just think it's appropriate that we recognize it so that people understand the significance," said Williams, who is black. "We want to make sure that people don't forget our history."
Each of the lawmakers had heard from constituents who wanted more recognition for Juneteenth, Robinson said, and recent protests highlighting racial inequality "really emphasized the need for swift action."
"By going so far as to make it a state holiday, we think that it will increase the visibility of our nation's history with slavery and help the folks of the commonwealth really grapple with both our 400-year history with black Americans and how we can do better into the future," Robinson said. "We wanted for it to be something that we continue to reflect on in years to come."
Williams said he hopes greater recognition for Juneteenth could be part of an ongoing process to promote understanding of black history, particularly in schools.
"Sometimes I think people don't realize the contributions we have made," he said. "But, anything we can do to highlight the history to let folks begin to reflect and understand that black people are a big part of the history of this country, it starts the conversation. At least people start to reflect."
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize this year for the 1619 Project, which seeks to center "the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans" in narratives of U.S. history.
While July 4, 1776, is remembered for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Hannah-Jones writes in the project's lead essay, "the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst ... Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals."
The Du Bois Center in Great Barrington has celebrated Juneteenth for the past two decades, drawing "hundreds of people" some years, said Randy Weinstein, its director.
For Weinstein, Juneteenth calls to mind a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, commonly cited as "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"
"He gave that speech in his dream that one day we could all celebrate a day of independence as a nation," Weinstein said. "June 19 could materialize into that national day of recognition, a national day of reckoning, a national day of reflection for all of us."
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he supported making Juneteenth a Massachusetts holiday.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she believes the proposal should be considered.
"I would say that the idea that we are all not free until everyone is free has merit and should be carefully considered," she said. "Designating a state holiday is a serious matter, and a decision needs to be preceded by a process where all voices are heard."
Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday, in 1980, and Virginia and New York this week have moved to make Juneteenth a paid holiday. Texas U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee also had said she is working to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
The First Congregational Church and Greylock Together are holding a Juneteenth celebration in Williamstown's Field Park at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.