Juneteenth to Be Official NYC Holiday Next Year; New Yorkers Continue Weekend Protests

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What to Know

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday he would make it a holiday in New York City in 2021, including for schools
  • Five more Black Lives Matter mural will be painted along New York City streets in the coming weeks, the mayor said
  • Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets to demonstrate that there's a long way to go for racial equality in the country

For the first time, Friday’s Juneteeth celebrations will be a holiday for New York state employees, marking a pivotal shift of the day that celebrates the liberation of enslaved Black people in the United States.

Juneteenth was normally observed by African American families with cookouts, a parade or a festival, but as calls for racial justice sparked by the death of George Floyd continue to grow, it will now also be a day of action. Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets to demonstrate that there's a long way to go for racial equality in the country.

One of the rallies in the city was held at the Brooklyn Public Library, with Borough President Eric Adams and NYC council members in attendance. Dozens more transpired throughout the city's boroughs including an evening vigil at Prospect Park for Black female-identifying victims of violence.

As the sun set, scores of marchers went through the streets voicing their message. More than 6,000 people at one point marched or rode their bikes over the Brooklyn Bridge before heading up Sixth Avenue. One group was marching up Lexington Avenue at East 79th Street when they were nearly run over by an SUV that plowed into the crowd, with protesters banging on the hood to get the driver to stop. The incident led to a clash before two protesters were arrested and charged for breaking some of the vehicle's glass, with police saying the driver was not at fault. There were no injuries reported.

"Although slavery ended over 150 years ago, there has still been rampant, systemic discrimination and injustice in this state and this nation, and we have been working to enact real reforms to address these inequalities," Cuomo said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will push to make Juneteenth a statewide holiday next year, while Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday he would make it a holiday in New York City in 2021, including for schools.

"We'll work with all the unions to work through a plan to give this day the importance and recognition it deserves," the mayor said. "Every city worker, every student will have an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our history and the truth."

More than 460 companies, including Nike, Twitter and Lyft, have committed to observing Juneteenth, with the majority offering a paid day off, according to HellaCreative, a group of black creative professionals that launched an initiative to galvanize corporate support for making the day an official holiday. Other prominent corporations giving employees time off include Target, J.C. Penney, Best Buy, the NFL and J.P. Morgan Chase.

Lori Rosen, owner of a small public relations firm in New York City, had never heard of Juneteenth until recently. But she decided to give her 16 employees the day off when she saw big tech companies doing it, and after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared it a holiday for state employees. Several of her employees are spending the day volunteering for the Juneteenth Freedom Phonebank, an initiative encouraging Census participation.

“I thought to myself, ‘How did I not know about this all these years?’” said Rosen, 64, who is white. “I started wondering, is this another example of how a national holiday is formed?”

The question is whether the fervor of the moment will last and where it will ultimately lead. While the list has grown quickly, only a small minority of U.S. companies are observing Juneteenth, and not all have committed to do so beyond this year.

From the streets of Brooklyn to New York City Hall, Juneteenth was marked with calls for action in the tri-state area. See team coverage of the day here.

Elsewhere in the city, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other members of the council including the co-chairs of the Black, Latino and Asian caucus, wrote a letter Thursday to de Blasio demanding a Thomas Jefferson statue be removed from City Hall.

De Blasio did not provide a direct answer to the council's letter on Friday, but said a newly formed Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission would be tasked with examining the Jefferson statue. The City and Commission will identify areas where discrimination continues to manifest; in housing, criminal justice, environmental justice, education and place-based disparities.

“We are saying officially that we want the truth to come out in the open,” de Blasio said at a press briefing. The formation of a commission on race will make New York the first major city in the United States to undertake a truth and reconciliation process, de Blasio said. 

The mayor praised the work of city leaders and artists to bring the Black Lives Matter mural to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Five more painted murals along New York City streets in each borough will be completed in the coming weeks, he said.

The murals will be painted on Centre Street in Manhattan, Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, 153rd Street in Queens and Morris Street in the Bronx.

As of Thursday, organizers with the Movement for Black Lives said they had registered more than 275 Juneteenth weekend events across 45 states, through its website.

“I think this year is going to be exciting to make white people celebrate with us that we’re free,” said 35-year-old Army veteran David J. Hamilton III, who has organized a Juneteenth march and protest through a predominantly Black, Hispanic and immigrant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Hamilton, who is Black, said this year is his first treating “Juneteenth with the same fanfare as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.”

Across the river in New Jersey, there were similar demonstrations and celebrations for Juneteenth. Gov. Phil Murphy said at one rally that the day can be used to "recognize the many generations of pain which have been visited upon" Black families, while also celebrating "the new generation of Americans who refuse to inherit this legacy."

"We cannot allow ourselves to walk through this world with blinders on, claiming emptily that we don’t 'see race' – when what that means is we are ignoring the inequalities that exist today. We cannot escape the fact that systemic racism – not the outward racism of hate groups, but the silent racism of complacency – has bled into nearly every facet of our society," Murphy said. "Let’s do this together. Let’s make this Juneteenth 2020 a day not just of historical celebration, but the day where we took another step forward in transforming our state in a way that future generations will celebrate."

Juneteenth marks the day on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers told enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863 but it was not enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The day is recognized in 47 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states without an official recognition.

Momentum toward Juneteenth becoming a nationwide holiday could hinge on whether the country’s largest employer — the federal government — joins the trend. The date (June 19th) is not a federal holiday, and many non-black Americans have only recently become of aware of the day. It took roughly 18 years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. before his birthday was observed as a federal holiday.

There is growing support for the idea. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced legislation Thursday to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, introduced a similar bill in the House. Texas was the first state to make it a holiday in 1980. 

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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