A new City holiday: Juneteenth

The Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission’s celebration of Juneteenth in 2021 included music, dancers, and information booths on topics like the City’s early childhood learning program, Read Ready Covington. 

Vote acknowledges Covington’s diversity, inclusive attitude

COVINGTON, Ky. – The City of Covington has a new official holiday: Juneteenth.

On a practical level, that means City Hall will remain open for business this coming Monday – the 2022 observance of the federal Presidents Day holiday – and close instead on Monday, June 20.

On a symbolic level, the recent vote by the Covington Board of Commissioners to switch paid holidays for non-union City employees represents something bigger:

City leaders are taking another step to acknowledge the diversity of the Covington community and to show that being inclusive and welcoming is a core value that needs to be formalized and publicized.

Recognized on or around the date of June 19, Juneteenth has long been celebrated by many African Americans as “Freedom Day” or “Juneteenth Independence Day,” marking the end to slavery in the United States (more below). It was recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, and Covington joins Kentucky cities like Louisville, Lexington, and Midway in formally recognizing it as an official holiday for local government employees.

Covington native and longtime resident Robin Williams said she hopes the decision both inspires other cities to do the same and leads to a bigger celebration in her own town.

“I’m really proud of my City of Covington for passing this, for acknowledging this day,” Williams said. “The City is really stepping up and showing others. I applaud Covington because by making this a holiday, others will look to you and eventually it will be everywhere.”

2021 event

Last year, the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission’s “Fatherhood Program” sponsored a Juneteenth celebration at Randolph Park in Covington. The five-hour event featured food, games, live entertainment, and booths dedicated to health screenings, job openings, and the City’s Read Ready Covington early childhood literacy initiative.

“They gave away T-shirts, they had free food (and it was so good), they had voter registration drives, vendors, and there were African dancers, and they were great,” Williams said.

Mayor Pro Tem/City Commissioner Ron Washington proposed the City’s designation late last year.

“It gives credence to an important act in our country’s history,” Washington said. “Recognizing this national holiday, when African Americans were no longer enslaved, is an important step in showing the progress we’ve made toward racial equality and how far we’ve come as a country.”

For now, the order (seen HERE) passed by the Commission in January applies only to the 62 employees who aren’t members of one of the City’s three unions, since paid time off for most police, fire, public works, and other employees are governed by existing, negotiated contracts.

Yahya Abdul-Hafeez, who was born and raised in Covington, said the over-due recognition of Juneteenth is a matter of furthering people’s education.

“I think one of the most important reasons for it to be recognized is it’s a reminder of our history – a history that was not taught in schools,” said Abdul-Hafeez, who is a member of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, Lodge #37, part of a national organization that was founded in Cincinnati by African American B.F. Howard. “Most people didn’t find out about Juneteenth until they were in college.”

Williams is also a member of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, belonging to the Meadowlark Etta Wah Temple #7, and she agreed. Although she has a Bachelor of Arts in Education, she said she didn’t learn about Juneteenth until well into her 20s.

“It wasn’t taught in school and my parents never talked about it,” she said. “I hated history in high school, I just didn’t care about it.”

Both Williams and Abdul-Hafeez said they looked forward to attending another Juneteenth celebration this year and hoped they’ll see even more fanfare and participation throughout the region.

In time, Williams said, commemoration of the historical day warrants a celebration on par with the more widely known Independence Day: “I want a parade just like they do for the Fourth of July. Let’s do it.”

About Juneteenth

“Juneteenth” – a combination of “June” and “19” – recognizes the date in 1865 when many enslaved people in Texas first learned they were free. Although President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it wasn’t enforced in a number of places until the Civil War ended two years later.

Texas was a haven for slaveholders because of the limited Union presence in the state and because many Southern slave owners had moved their slaves there. Two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger (who by the way is buried in Lexington, Ky.) took his troops to Galveston, Texas, to share the news that the war was over and that enslaved people were now legally free.

The first celebration of “Juneteenth” occurred in 1866, and Texas in 1979 became the first state to make the day an official holiday.

Roughly 180,000 African-American soldiers served in the Union armies – and Abdul-Hafeez said he couldn’t help but envision the fervor on that day when Union soldiers arrived in town to deliver the news of freedom.

“Think if you’re a black Union soldier and you ride into Galveston to let your people know they are free,” Addul-Hafeez said. “You talk about a celebration!”

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