Juneteenth is celebrated in 1900 at Eastwoods Park in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Juneteenth, the day that has come to mark the end of slavery in the United States, has been declared a state holiday in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill last week designating June 19 each year as Juneteenth and as a paid state holiday on which all nonessential state offices must be closed. Massachusetts and Louisiana took similar steps in recent weeks to make Juneteenth an official state holiday.

Juneteenth marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure that all enslaved people were freed, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The following year, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what would become an annual celebration.

Juneteenth arrives this Saturday. However, Maine’s new law will not take effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session, which means June 19, 2022, is the first time it will be recognized as a paid holiday for state workers.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who noted in testimony to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee that Juneteenth “does not celebrate one day in just one place, but instead it recognizes the harsh experiences of all those who were enslaved. The mothers, fathers, children and siblings who toiled in Maine’s soil and built Maine’s economy without enjoying their own freedom.”

“This is a part of history for all our communities and it is time that we recognize it completely. I believe a paid state holiday elevates the visibility of the holiday and therefore the reason for its existence,” Talbot Ross testified. “Through this holiday, we can teach about and discuss Maine’s history with slavery and its lasting effects on our culture and communities. We can uncover this history that has been forgotten. And finally, we can honor our past as we also move forward.”

Talbot Ross was not available for an interview Monday.

Efforts to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday have stalled in Congress. But most states have recognized it as a holiday in some way.

In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then, 46 other states have joined in recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, though fewer than 10 recognize it as an official paid holiday for state employees. Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states that do not recognize Juneteenth, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In 2011, then-Gov. Paul LePage signed legislation that made Maine the 38th state to recognize Juneteenth Independence Day, although that law did not make it an official state holiday.

Mills issued a statement about the new law.

“The end of slavery was made possible by the courage and sacrifice of nearly 200,000 former enslaved and free African Americans who fought for freedom and liberty alongside their fellow Union soldiers, including more than 70,000 soldiers from Maine,” Mills said in a statement. “While we have made progress in the long march to create a more perfect union since that fateful day, progress is by no means inevitable. By establishing Juneteenth as a State of Maine holiday, may we renew our commitment to fighting for a state and nation where equality, freedom, and justice for all is more than an ideal, but a reality.”

During testimony on Talbot Ross’ bill, 10 people spoke in support of recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday. They urged the committee to support the designation while also learning more about Maine’s connections to slavery and the ongoing fight for racial justice. No one spoke against the bill.

“While we have come a long way from June 1865, we must still confront oppressive conditions today: police violence, voter suppression and mass incarceration, to name just three. Many of these harmful systems carry echoes of slavery, from which our own state’s economy reaped enormous benefits,” said Michael Kebede of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

James Ford, a member of the education committee for the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, testified in support of the bill and asked people to acknowledge the slavery that existed in Maine. Over the 160 years before Maine became a state in 1820, there were at least 21 enslaved people recorded in Portland, close to 500 in the Kittery area and an unknown number in other communities.

Ford, a former president of the Abyssinian Meeting House board, called Juneteenth “our true independence day.”

“A day when everyone regardless of color, gender or social status has the innate right to be free. Freedom was and is hard fought and precious. People have fought to protect it, died to uphold it and stood fast to keep it,” he said. “A day set aside to honor and reflect on what it takes to not only celebrate our freedom but also protect it is most fitting. It is a day to dedicate ourselves to the dream which the founding fathers articulated but could not fulfill. It is a day to join together in celebration of our most precious right, the right to live, work and love as free people.”

Jeff McCabe, director of politics and legislation for the Maine Service Employees Association SEIU Local 1989, a labor union that represents more than 13,000 members, testified in support of making Juneteenth an official state holiday to “allow us as citizens to reflect on the importance of a date and remind us of the important history associated with an event.”

“In the year 2021, let us move forward as a state by celebrating Juneteenth, honoring African American freedom and by doing so creating space for ongoing dialogue, progress and respect of all cultures,” McCabe said in his testimony.

Last week, the South Portland City Council unanimously passed a resolution proclaiming every June 19 to be Juneteenth Independence Day.

“Juneteenth commemorates the strength and determination of African Americans who were first brought to the stolen lands of America in the hulls of slave ships traveling the trade route known as the ‘Middle Passage’ and celebrates the rich heritage and accomplishments of African Americans in our country,” the resolution states.

Plans are in the works to fly a Juneteenth flag at South Portland City Hall this week in recognition of the holiday.

Demonstrators march up India Street in Portland while chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” during a Juneteenth Black Lives Matter rally in Portland in 2020. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Last year, Juneteenth was marked as a day of both celebration and protest, with people marching through downtown Portland calling for an end to police violence against Black people.

Several Juneteenth events are planned for Saturday in Maine, including a virtual event featuring Black performers.

The State Theatre and Coded by Young Women of Color, a Portland-based nonprofit, will host Juneteenth!, a virtual showcase of local Black artists prerecorded live at the empty theater. The event, which will be streamed on Facebook, includes performances by Black musicians and performers, including Janaesound, Mosart212, Ali Ali and Rodney Mashia. The event is free, but donations are welcome to benefit CYWOC.

Friends of Congress Square Park in Portland will kick off its Juneteenth events with an in-person performance by Maine Inside Out from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday in the park. On Saturday, the event continues at 1 p.m. with community dialogue and engagement through active art making.


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