Saturday, June 10, 2023

City to consider making Juneteenth a paid holiday

City of Wilmington council will consider adding Juneteenth as an official city holiday at Tuesday’s meeting. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — City employees may be able to add an eleventh paid holiday to the year if council passes a resolution added to Tuesday’s agenda.

The chair of Wilmington’s Commission on African American History, Evelyn Bryant, has asked for Juneteenth to become a part of the city’s current calendar. She submitted a letter in February to city manager Tony Caudle after the board of the African American history commission voted unanimously in January to move forward with the ask.

READ MORE: Juneteenth federal holiday doesn’t guarantee (paid) time off in local, state governments

Bryant wrote the move would be “in recognition of the importance of this day to celebrate, reflect and rededicate ourselves to eradicating racism and inequality.”

Juneteenth National Independence Day became a federal holiday signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021 and is honored June 19. The city stipulates in its resolution that if the holiday falls on Saturday, staff will recognize it Friday; if it lands on a Sunday, it will be honored the following Monday.

The holiday started more than 150 years ago when Major Gen. Gordon Granger and federal soldiers arrived in Galveston Island, Texas, to inform slaves they were truly free — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The first celebrations began in 1860 as Freedom Day for Black Americans who celebrated it as their own Independence Day.

Many social justice advocates decry that the nation’s Declaration of Independence didn’t necessarily follow the text it outlined: “that all men are created equal.” It came at a time when slaves were acceptably held captive across the nation and Native Americans had been pushed from their land, with women also having few freedoms. Thus, they surmise July 4, when Congress adopted the declaration, doesn’t truly represent freedom and justice for all.

Currently, 21 states recognize Juneteenth as paid, according to the Congressional Research Service. North Carolina isn’t one. A bill was presented in the 2021 and 2022 General Assembly legislative sessions to make it official but stalled. Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 262 last year to give additional paid holiday to state employees, but it only applied to those who report to his cabinet. He suggested other government entities make its own resolutions.

Municipalities in North Carolina have followed suit — Asheville, Charlotte, Greenville, Raleigh and Durham, for example.

If Wilmington’s city council agrees to the proposal at next week’s meeting, it will be the first municipality in New Hanover County to formally recognize the paid holiday.

The county itself follows the lead of the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources, which hasn’t adopted the observed holiday yet. However, the county changed its policy in January 2021 to add a floating holiday.

“This allows employees to take a day of leave,” spokesperson Jessica Loeper detailed to PCD last year. “It was specifically created with [Juneteenth] in mind.”

Yet, employees can take the absence any time during the year.

The City of Wilmington’s budget staff has noted a Juneteenth paid holiday would cost $113,500, “primarily in the areas of public safety and public services,” a letter signed by city manager Caudle states. Employees that work at least 1,000 hours annually are eligible. 

Caudle added in his letter to council members and the mayor that Juneteenth “serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the need for continued efforts to combat racism, discrimination, and inequities among all people groups.”

The resolution is being put forth as a continued commitment through council’s Rise Together Initiative and to recognize the “grave impact slavery had on the Cape Fear region.” 

Rise Together was signed off on in 2020 by council members in the wake of nationwide protests after the George Floyd murder. The initiative centers on rising above “residual challenges” rooted in Wilmington’s harried racial past. It calls out events like the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, the prosecution of the Wilmington 10, and racial segregation in the mid-20th century whose aftereffects continue to ripple through communities that include underserved voices. 

Rise Together’s goal is to ensure “equity, diversity, and full inclusion in civic life” for all residents of the City of Wilmington, despite color, ethnic background, class or creed. The initiative inspired the hiring of the city’s first equity and inclusion officer and was aimed to create community programs and engagement to help break down systemic needs in the community. 

The council will vote on signing off on Juneteenth as a paid holiday at its April 4 meeting. Bryant requested Caudle and staff provide a “favorable recommendation,” which has been received, according to agenda review documents here.

[Update: Council passed the proposal unanimously.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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