Mayor Kenney declares Juneteenth an official Philadelphia holiday

Juneteenth Parade participants wave from their float as they make their way through Center City in June 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Juneteenth Parade participants wave from their float as they make their way through Center City in June 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney announced Tuesday night that he will issue an executive order designating Juneteenth an official city holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when Union troops reached Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War had ended and that previously enslaved people were free. It occurred a little over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Though Black Americans have celebrated the day for years, the push to recognize it as an officially sanctioned holiday has gained new traction as widespread protests coalesce around police violence against Black Americans and as non-Black Americans become more literate in the nation’s history.

Philadelphia has held a Juneteenth festival and parade every year for the past four years. Last year, it was home to the largest Juneteenth festival in the country, according to 6ABC. But this is the first year the city will recognize Juneteenth officially.

Mayor Jim Kenney referred to the event in a statement Tuesday night, saying that he has participated in the parade and festival for the past few years.

“The only way to dismantle the institutional racism and inequalities that continue to disenfranchise Black Philadelphians is to look critically at how we got here, and make much-needed changes to the governmental systems that allow inequality to persist,” Kenney said in the statement. “This designation of Juneteenth represents our administration’s commitment to reckon with our own role in maintaining racial inequities as well as our understanding of the magnitude of work that lies ahead.”

He added that the designation was made in consultation with the city’s Reconciliation Steering Committee, established two weeks ago to address the structural issues faced by people of color in Philadelphia.

“We are thrilled that Mayor Kenney and the City of Philadelphia have moved to make Juneteenth an official City holiday… this is another demonstration of his commitment to correct past wrongs and honor the value of citizens whose humanity is often overlooked,” said Michael Rashid, CEO of PA Juneteenth Initiative Inc., the organization in charge of organizing the festival for four years.

On Friday, all city offices and facilities will be closed to the public to observe the holiday, according to a press release from the mayor’s office. The School District of Philadelphia will also be closed in recognition of the holiday, according to an announcement from Superintendent William Hite Jr. Tuesday night.

The designation is for the year 2020. Kenney’s administration says it “will pursue all necessary steps to ensure Juneteenth continues to be an official City holiday in Philadelphia for years to come.”

Juneteenth is observed in more than half of American states, including Pennsylvania; in 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an act designating June 19 “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” establishing the holiday as an annual observance. It is not currently recognized as a federal holiday.

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