On Juneteenth, Gov. Dunleavy weighs adding a new legal holiday for Alaska

a woman addresses a meeting room
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate floor session in Juneau on Feb, 8, 2019. (Skip Gray/360 North)

As Alaska celebrates Juneteenth on Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is weighing whether to sign a bill to make it a legal holiday in Alaska.

Dunleavy has until early July to make a decision on Senate Bill 22. If he approves the measure, it will automatically go into effect for 2025.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” celebrates the freedom of enslaved people in the United States. For Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, the sponsor of the bill, it is important that Juneteenth is recognized in the same way as other holidays.

“Just like we celebrate the Fourth of July, Juneteenth is celebrating the freedom — the true freedom — of slaves,” said Gray-Jackson, a Black state senator and Democrat representing Anchorage’s Midtown.

The holiday commemorates when the last enslaved people in the Confederacy learned they were free. While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, didn’t learn about their freedom until nearly two years later, on June 19, 1865. The holiday is also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day.

President Joe Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021. Gray-Jackson has always been interested in making Juneteenth a state holiday, she said, but Biden’s decision sparked her into action. She initially introduced a Juneteenth bill in 2021, which failed to gain traction. Gray-Jackson reintroduced the bill in 2023, when the Senate passed it, 16-4. In May, the House passed the bill, 37-3.

Supporters say the bill is intended to make the day a paid holiday for state workers; state administration officials have said that whether workers are paid ultimately would depend on union contracts.

More than half of states recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. June 19 was also established as a paid municipal holiday in Anchorage last year. The Anchorage Assembly’s vote was unanimous, and granted Indigenous People’s Day the same status. The state recognizes Indigenous People’s Day, though it is not paid; Alaska currently celebrates 11 paid holidays, including Alaska Day and Seward’s Day.

Since 2001, Alaska state law has recognized Juneteenth on the third Saturday of June each year, and mandates a proclamation from the governor. Dunleavy made no mention of Senate Bill 22 in his Juneteenth proclamation on Saturday. For Celeste Hodge Growden, the president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, celebrating Juneteenth as a state holiday means a “time to reflect, a time to educate, and a time to celebrate. And it’s not just Black people celebrating, it’s all of us celebrating freedom and seeing where we’ve come from, and where we’re headed. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Some people opposed to the bill cited the economic strain of a paid holiday, including Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, a Black member of the Senate who was one of four “no” votes last year. Before the Senate vote last year, he argued that state resources would be better spent on policies that address health care, economic, education and criminal justice disparities impacting African-American people.

For Hodge Growden, economic arguments against Juneteenth are an “insult,” especially when “for so long, all of the work was done for free.” Instead, she believes that Juneteenth “gets us closer to that Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King talked about often. We’re still striving to get there, and this would be another step for us.” The Beloved Community was King’s term for a peaceful, achievable society of reconciliation.

Gray-Jackson has invited Dunleavy to sign the bill at the Martin Luther King Jr. Living Memorial, where he signed the Black History Month bill in 2019. Dunleavy has three options with the bill: signing it, vetoing it or allowing it to become law without his signature.

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