As North Dakota and the United States begin to recognize the occasion more broadly, Grand Forks is set to celebrate Juneteenth for the first time in recent memory Saturday.
The holiday, also called Emancipation Day or Black Independence Day, commemorates the end of legal slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865. Though the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved black people came two and a half years before then, many Texas slaveholders kept their slaves until the end of the Civil War was announced in Galveston on June 19, 1865.
“America actually has two independence days,” Shannelle Thompson, one of the Grand Forks celebration’s organizers, told the Herald. “You have America’s independence from the monarch of Britain, and you have the independence of the last of the black slaves in 1865.”
The celebration in Grand Forks is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, June 20, at the Greenway entrance off Second Avenue North in downtown Grand Forks. That will be three days after Gov. Doug Burgum declared June 19 of this year -- the anniversary itself -- Juneteenth Celebration Day statewide.
The city- and state-wide recognition both come about three weeks after the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who was killed by a white police officer late last month, sparking widespread demonstrations and rekindling an effort to reform America’s police forces and reconsider its treatment of black citizens.
“We think now is the moment to do it,” said Hamzat Koriko, another one of the Grand Forks celebration’s organizers who also spoke passionately at a downtown demonstration after Floyd’s death.
Thompson said the recognition has needed to happen for a while.
“Ultimately, we have that confidence to do it now,” she said. “(Floyd) kind of ignited that fire within us, again.”
State, city recognition
The first Juneteenth celebrations were held in Texas in 1866, and Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. Every state legislature or governor has since followed Texas’ lead, with the exception of North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii. Burgum’s Wednesday proclamation is the first time a North Dakota governor has formally recognized the holiday, but it doesn’t enshrine the day the same way that other states -- and the District of Columbia -- have.
In Grand Forks, there are three avenues through which the city government could recognize the day: a pair of Grand Forks City Council votes that would add Juneteenth to a list of holidays during which city offices are closed and city staff have the day off, such as News Years Day and Independence Day; a City Council resolution recognizing the day itself, which is how Council members replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in July 2019; or a mayoral proclamation, which City Attorney Howard Swanson said would be the same, legally, as a Council resolution.
Council member Katie Dachtler, who helped lead the push for Indigenous Peoples Day last summer, said no one has approached her about a similar move for Juneteenth but that she wouldn’t be surprised if someone did. Mike Brown, Grand Forks’ longtime mayor, said adding it to the city’s calendar was worth a discussion.
Council President Dana Sande and Brandon Bochenski, Grand Forks’ mayor-elect who’s set to be sworn in next week after beating Brown and two other candidates in citywide elections earlier this month, did not return Herald requests for comment.
This Saturday won’t be the first time there’s been a Juneteenth celebration in the Grand Forks region, however. Grand Forks Air Force Base held celebrations there years ago, and Faith & Hope Christian Center and the University of North Dakota’s multicultural office hosted a Juneteenth event during a farmers market in 2001.
‘Better late than never’
Regardless of how it’s recognized, the holiday itself has a considerably smaller profile in largely white communities. Multiple North Dakota historians contacted by the Herald declined to discuss Juneteenth, saying they had only learned of the holiday recently. Leah Byzewski, the executive director of the Grand Forks County Historical Society, said the first time she heard about Juneteenth was about a year ago, when she saw a documentary about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
She said it was jarring to realize the disconnect between what she was taught about black history in school, and what she wasn’t.
“When I was at UND, most of the focus was on the Civil Rights movement, especially the Supreme Court decisions in the '50s and '60s,” she said. “But, you know, here’s this huge story that happened -- now, people that I know who are African American and study history say, ‘Oh, of course, we knew about that.’ Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I did not.”
Nikki Berg Burin, an assistant professor of history at UND, said that, too often, the lasting legacies of slavery aren’t taught in most history classes.
“We need to teach it as part of the American historical narrative and not as a side note or special interest topic,” Berg Burin said. “Widespread Juneteenth celebrations will help do just that.”
Byzewski agreed on the importance of recognizing Juneteenth.
“Better late than never,” she said.
Burgum’s proclamation was not the first attempt to officially recognize Juneteenth in North Dakota.
During the 2009-10 legislative session, a group of five state representatives and senators, including JoNell Bakke, Lonny Winrich and Eliot Glasheim of Grand Forks, introduced a concurrent resolution that would designate June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day. The resolution did not advance.
While Burgum’s proclamation is only for this year, Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, told Forum News Service that he will propose a bill in the next legislative session, which begins in January, to recognize Juneteenth as a North Dakota holiday.
That may not be easy.
Mathern, who has been in the senate since 1987, was around for the attempts to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday in North Dakota.
Rep. Judy DeMers, of Grand Forks, introduced a bill in 1987 to make it a holiday and received significant backlash.
Some opponents were upset because they felt it would lead to a paid holiday. The Herald also reported that anonymous callers told DeMers they believed King was a “communist and that he deserved his assassination, not a holiday.”
In 1991, North Dakota finally approved Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid state holiday. That legislation was introduced by Sen. Jack Ingstad, of Grand Forks. At the time, the only other state that hadn’t made it a holiday was Arizona.
Even after it passed, a tax lawyer from Mandan, who said the state should not honor King, attempted to collect enough signatures to put it to a statewide vote. His attempt failed and it became a paid holiday beginning in 1992.