BISMARCK — North Dakota's Republican-dominated House voted Tuesday, April 6, to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, putting the state on course to join 47 other states that already celebrate the emancipation anniversary.
Senate Bill 2232 advanced out of the House in a 70-22 vote. It was approved by the Senate earlier this session and now heads to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk.
North Dakota is one of just three states in the country that doesn't already recognize Juneteenth. Marches and protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis sparked conversation about the holiday in North Dakota last summer. Burgum declared June 19, 2020, a day of celebration, though his proclamation applied only for that year.
Fargo Democrat Sen. Tim Mathern, who introduced the Juneteenth bill alongside his longtime Republican colleague Sen. Ray Holmberg, of Grand Forks, said he wasn't aware of Juneteenth until last summer, when he participated in protest marches after George Floyd's death. Looking for ways to bridge racial divides in North Dakota, the Fargo senator committed to pursuing legislation that would establish the emancipation celebration as a state holiday.
Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of Union forces in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, where they informed enslaved people of the end of the Civil War and their new freedom. Though President Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years prior, many people in Southern and border states remained enslaved as the war continued.
"I think it's a symbol of respect for that history that their ancestors suffered, and I think that's important," said Mathern, who added that recognition of Juneteenth would mark "another welcome sign" for people of all races in the majority white North Dakota.
Currently, South Dakota and Hawaii are the only other states that don't officially recognize Juneteenth. There are no Black members in North Dakota's predominately white Legislature, and Black people make up just under 3.5% of the state's population, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Though Mathern's bill would establish Juneteenth as a state recognized holiday, it would not provide a paid day off for state employees, a provision he said would not garner enough support among lawmakers.
The bill drew some opposition on the House floor Tuesday. Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, a member of the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus, argued North Dakota should establish its own day to commemorate the end of slavery rather than adopting an event that he said was pushed by a left-wing political movement over the last year.
"The concern that I have is that this is more of a movement in lines with being woke — wokeness," he said. "It comes from the left."
Still, other Republicans vouched for the proposal on the House floor.
"This bill is just closing the door on one of the darkest chapters in our history as a nation," said Rep. Matthew Ruby, R-Minot.
The sponsors of the Juneteenth bill, Mathern and Holmberg, are the same bipartisan pair who successfully backed legislation to recognize the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1991, about seven years after it was established as a federal holiday.
"This is more of a broader look at our history," Mathern said of this year's Juneteenth proposal. "To the degree that we do that — meaning learn more about each other — we then become more accepting, careful and respectful of each other."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.