FORT SMITH, Ark. — Monday was the first time Juneteenth has been recognized as a federal holiday since 1865 when Union Troops announced all enslaved people were free.
General Gordan Granger and Union Troops arrived in Galveston, Texas 157 years ago. When they arrived, they announced the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
“What a great nation we are because of that day,” said Fort Smith Mayor, George McGill. “African Americans were freed to become thinkers. They were freed to become educators, engineers, doctors, pilots…even the President of the United States.”
In 2021, President Biden signed The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law – this year, for the first time, Juneteenth was federally recognized.
“In a hundred plus years, we’ve come a long way and we’re much, much better for it,” says McGill.
The holiday fell on Sunday, June 19, but was observed by millions of Americans today. JoAnna Cole-Brewer and her family are active in the Fort Smith and River Valley communities helping raise awareness about the holiday. When they saw the news last year – knowing what it meant for today’s observance, they were elated.
“That was a day of jubilee, which is what Juneteenth is all about,” said Cole-Brewer.
Although the country has made significant strides toward equality for all and recognizing all the great efforts of Black men and women throughout history, there’s still work that can be done.
“There’s always more that can be done,” said McGill. “Everyone aims for zero defects, but that’s not here. So what we do, is strive every day to be a little bit better.”
The City of Fort Smith passed an ordinance recognizing Juneteenth – giving city workers a paid day off. All 50 states and Washington D.C. observe Juneteenth, but Arkansas and 25 other states have yet to observe it as a permanent paid state holiday. This year alone, 14 states observed Juneteenth as a state holiday.
Like Fort Smith, Fayetteville also observes the holiday and became the first city in the Natural State to do so.
McGill and Cole-Brewer are proud of the efforts they see here at home to celebrate those who came before them and are excited to see how the federal recognition can help further educate and honor not only Black history but American history.
“It’s not saying that all lives don’t matter, but all don’t matter when they’re not all recognized and treated the same,” says Cole-Brewer. “That’s why Juneteenth, as a federally recognized holiday, is so important.”
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