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Juneteenth becomes an official Massachusetts holiday

Jonathan Talley, of Roxbury, grilled chicken, ribs, and sausage at Franklin Park for a Juneteenth celebration in 2014.
Jonathan Talley, of Roxbury, grilled chicken, ribs, and sausage at Franklin Park for a Juneteenth celebration in 2014.Zack Wittman - For The Boston Globe

Juneteenth, the traditional June 19 celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, will become a Massachusetts holiday under a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law Friday by Governor Charlie Baker.

The law adds “Juneteenth Independence Day” to a list of holidays — along with Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day — on which employees must be paid holiday pay and cannot be required to work. On those days, the state allows retail stores to be open but not to sell alcohol.

In a signing statement Friday, Baker wrote that the law “establishes Juneteenth Independence Day as an annual state holiday on June 19 in order to recognize the continued need to ensure racial freedom and equality.”

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State Representative Bud L. Williams of Springfield added the measure as an amendment to a roughly $1 billion coronavirus spending bill the House sent to Baker’s desk in mid-July. His move followed a public outcry against anti-Black racism that has led to calls for greater recognition of Black history and the legacy of slavery.

Williams said in June that state recognition of Juneteenth “will go a long way in bridging the racial gap between individuals.” He could not be reached to comment Monday.

“Commemorating Juneteenth is an important acknowledgment of the sacrifice of formerly enslaved Black people in this country, and a reminder of the ongoing racial justice work needed the promise of freedom to be a reality for all of us,” Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, said in a statement.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and many other legislators voiced support for the amendment, with Deleo saying in a Twitter post that the commemoration “reminds us of the most painful parts of America’s history and shows us that while progress is possible.”

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The Juneteenth amendment passed the House unanimously late last month.

Juneteenth is a remembrance of the date in 1865 — 2½ years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — when a Union general arrived in Galveston and informed Texas residents that enslaved Black people had been freed, prompting the release of tens of thousands still in bondage.

It was first celebrated as a holiday in Texas in 1866, and over time it spread across the country. In Boston, Black families have long gathered at Franklin Park on June 19 for cookouts and celebrations.

Boston City Council President Kim Janey and Councilors Julia Mejia and Andrea Campbell have led a push for the city to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, something they said other cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, have been moving to do.

On Monday, Mejia said she was excited to see that “people throughout the Commonwealth” shared their belief the day should be officially recognized, calling the holiday “a time for us to reflect and educate and reclaim our history.” But she stressed that recognizing the day “is just the beginning.”

“Right now, on the city and state level, there are policy changes being proposed in order to address systemic injustices in our system and value and validate the lived experiences of black and brown folks,” Mejia said in a statement. “We need to continue to show up and show out to make sure that these changes are community-driven and accountable to the people they seek to represent.”

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The councilors’ push for a city holiday met with widespread support, and the full council passed a resolution officially recognizing Juneteenth this year. Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in June that he backed the effort, but the declaration of a holiday would have to happen at the state level.

Walsh on Monday praised the state’s embrace of Juneteenth, saying it “is a monumental day for our nation and our city.”

“It’s a day we commemorate the end of slavery and we honor the Black community’s role fighting for their rights and making us a better nation,” Walsh said in a statement. “I’m proud that moving forward Juneteenth will be recognized as an official holiday, marking a day to acknowledge the legacy of injustice, and the fight for freedom we carry forward today.”

Last month, Baker proclaimed June 19, 2020, Juneteenth Independence Day across the state. He pledged then to work with legislators to give the celebration greater recognition.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.