LAKELAND, Fla. — It's called Juneteenth, and it's considered Emancipation Day for African Americans. On June 19, 1865, the Union Army made it to Texas to tell the last known slaves and slaveowners that the Civil War had ended and slavery was officially abolished.
ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill highlighted why this day continues to be so important to many African Americans today, and he took a closer look at the push to make Juneteenth a state holiday, following the bill President Biden signed Thursday making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday.
In 1619, the first Africans enslaved by English colonists were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, and for generations, enslaved Africans would be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment as the economy grew on the backs of free labor. It wasn't until two months after the civil war ended that the last known group of slaves was emancipated, and that emancipation day is called Juneteenth.
Doris Moore Bailey is a historian and founder of the proposed African American Historical Museum of Lakeland. She says, after the Civil War ended, several confederate states refused to free their slaves.
"The news was deliberately withheld so that our ancestors could stay enslaved and work for free," said Moore Bailey.
So, the Union Army had to travel across the country notifying slaves and their masters that the war was over and that slavery was abolished.
"There were no telephones and no way of communicating," said Bailey.
However, on June 19, 1865, the Union Army finally made it to Galveston, Texas, which was thought to be the deepest part of the Confederacy. There, the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud, freeing the last known slaves.
Today, it's celebrated by African Americans as defeating the odds and upholding the core tenets of the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. However, historically, there's been a push to make states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday.
"During my time in the legislature, I was very interested in African American history," said Dr. Alzo Reddick, a former and long-time representative in the Florida House. 30 years ago, Dr. Reddick co-sponsored a bill that made Juneteenth a day of remembrance in Florida. "I debated and, of course, made the case in 1991 that this is a holiday that should be observed."
Forty-nine states, with the exception of South Dakota, have made Juneteenth a special day of observance, and some states have taken it even further. Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington have made it a paid holiday for state employees, and it turns out many people would like to see Florida's special designation of Juneteenth also become a paid holiday.
"I wanted to take it a step forward, give it a little bit more teeth and say, 'hey, this is an actual holiday just like Columbus Day, just like the Fourth of July. June 19 means something to us,'" said Travaris McCurdy, who represents Florida's House District 46. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored a state bill that would have made Juneteenth a legal holiday, but it died in the statehouse.
Just this week, the U.S. House and Senate passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and President Biden signed it into law on Thursday.
"So we're happy to see the folks in D.C. do what we can't necessarily get done here on the state level," said Rep. McCurdy. The bill received unanimous support in the Senate and passed the house, with only 14 Republicans dissenting. None of the dissenters were from Florida.
As the sponsor of the state's original bill that made Juneteenth a day of remembrance, now, more than ever, Dr. Reddick wants the next generation to learn all of American history.
"Another generation of children in our community will grow up knowing the truth about American history, which will contribute to a stronger America because it is a truthful America about its past," said Dr. Reddick.
While Juneteenth is now officially a federal paid holiday, that doesn't mean it'll be a paid holiday for state workers. For example, in 1983, when the Martin Luther King Holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, it took 17 years before the holiday was officially recognized in all 50 states.