It’s time for South Carolina to finally recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday | Opinion

History records June 19, 1865, as the day the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, and inform people in that remote part of the former Confederacy, “All slaves are free.”

And history records Aug. 18, 2020, as the day the Columbia City Council became the first in South Carolina to give city employees a paid day off to celebrate the liberation of Black Americans on Juneteenth — a poetic portmanteau of June and nineteenth. History also records June 17, 2021, as the day Juneteenth became a holiday for federal workers and Oct. 4, 2022, as the day Richland County Council added Juneteeth as a county holiday.

But history does not record when South Carolina, where more than one in four people are Black or African American, recognized Juneteenth as a holiday for state workers. Because it hasn’t happened. Yet.

South Carolina is the first state to secede from the Union, the state where the Civil War began and home to more than 2,000 plantations and many beautiful Juneteenth celebrations at this time of year. But its lawmakers have so far chosen not to commemorate a day as most other states have.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, has introduced several bills to make Juneteenth a state holiday since 2019. He says it’s the right thing and that it would keep state employment competitive with county and Columbia government jobs.

“I am looking forward to strongly pushing it next year,” he told me this week. “It probably should be the most celebrated day in the African American community.

“To me, it represents the best of this country.... It is not something that is antagonistic, although it is challenging. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, OK? But let’s look at Juneteenth as the best of America. It is America correcting itself.”

Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a permanent state holiday, in 1980. Twenty-five others followed in a wave of legislation following the massive protests over the murder of Minnesotan George Floyd in 2020. And at least five other states will give some state workers a paid day off or offer Juneteenth as a floating holiday this year by law or, as in Alabama and West Virginia, by gubernatorial action.

Now the rest of the states need to act.

Maybe, as sometimes happens, business leaders will force their hand.

Last year, a Mercer study found 39% of employers have made Juneteenth a paid holiday, up from 33% in 2022 and from 9% in 2021. Mine is one. It’s a paid holiday for employees of McClatchy, which owns The State, The Hilton Head Island Packet and the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

In a proclamation accompanying its observance in 2021, President Joe Biden called Juneteenth “a day of profound weight and power,” “a day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country” and “a day that also reminds us of our incredible capacity to heal, hope, and emerge from our darkest moments with purpose and resolve.”

The same reflection and resolve is needed at the state level. Perhaps next year is the year South Carolina lawmakers embrace the change.

If they are looking for a reason to give state workers this paid holiday, they could consider that state productivity already dips because some employees take it off to celebrate with family and friends now or that the state is one of only a few to close its offices to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day May 10.

For now, everyone should pause to reflect, and rejoice in our shared humanity. There are plenty of ways to mark Juneteenth. Sen. Jackson says you could sit in a slave cabin or walk past the gravestones in one of the state’s plantations. You could visit one of 400-plus African American cultural sites listed in the Green Book of South Carolina, shop or eat at a Black-owned business, get into the Columbia Museum of Art for free to see the work of Black artists or read any number of poignant books, such as “James” by Percival Everett.

Whatever you do, spend some time considering the history, the complexity and all the hard-fought freedoms of this country we call home while celebrating its people, food, culture and the better angels of our nature.